For decades, the medical community, spearheaded by the American Heart Association (AHA), has recommended limiting the intake of salt to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure.
Until recently, the daily maximum recommendation for sodium was 2,400 mg, or about 1 teaspoon of salt. But the AHA has lowered this recommendation to 1,500 mg a day — not just for those at risk, but for all Americans.
Why? Well, believe it or not, most Americans consume upwards of 3,400 mg of sodium a day! And this excess sodium can put everyone at risk for high blood pressure and the many complications that it can cause.
We Need Sodium — Just Not A Lot
Sodium actually has a few important purposes in the body. It helps maintain the right balance of fluids in the body, and it impacts the contraction and relaxation of muscles, just to name a few.
Your kidneys play an integral role in keeping sodium levels balanced. If you have low levels of sodium in your body, your body will store what you have so that levels don’t get any lower. And if your levels are too high, your kidneys will get rid of the excess through your urine.
However, if for some reason your kidneys can’t eliminate extra sodium in your body effectively, it can accumulate in your blood. This is problematic because sodium retains water, which increases your blood volume, forcing your heart to have to work harder to move blood through your blood vessels.
The result? Increased blood pressure. And with high blood pressure comes the elevated risk for many other health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Since sodium consumption is linked to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, you would naturally assume that sodium consumption in and of itself would increase the risk of stroke. But interestingly, studies have shown inconsistent results, which is why a team of researchers wanted to examine the sodium/stroke connection further in a new study published online before print for the AHA’s journal Stroke.
They examined 2,657 people who took part in the Northern Manhattan Study, which examined stroke incidence in 3,298 people between 1993 and 2001.
The average sodium consumption was 2,787 mg per day. Only 12 percent consumed the AHA-recommended level of 1,500 mg or less per day. Twenty-four percent consumed 1,501-2,300 mg per day, 43 percent consumed 2,301-3,999 mg per day, and 21 percent consumed 4,000-10,000 mg per day.
Over 10 years of follow-up, 235 strokes, 209 heart attacks and 371 heart-related deaths occurred. Researchers observed “an increased risk of stroke with greater sodium consumption, and this relationship became stronger after adjusting for behavioral and vascular risk factors.”
They also noted a 17 percent increase in stroke risk for each 500 mg per day increase in sodium consumption, and those who consumed 4,000 mg or more per day had a 2.6-fold increase in stroke risk versus those who consumed 1,500 mg or less daily. In fact, sodium intake in the 4,000-10,000 mg range was associated mainly with stroke and less with heart attack or heart-related death.
Cut the Salt
So cutting salt (or sodium) from your diet is as easy as laying off the salt shaker, right? If only it was that simple! The majority of sodium in the American diet comes from processed food, including bread, cold cuts, cheese, soup and prepared/frozen meals. And let’s not forget about the worst offender of all — fast food.
Eliminating these foods from your diet will drastically reduce your sodium intake, almost certainly getting you into the healthy 1,500 mg-or-less range. Realistically, though, it is difficult to permanently cut all processed food from your diet. So the next best option is to read labels carefully so that you are aware of how much sodium you’re taking in. And remember, even seemingly innocent things like a tablespoon of salad dressing contain salt.
 Gardener H et al. Dietary Sodium and Risk of Stroke in the Northern Manhattan Study. Stroke. 2012; 43: 1200-5.