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Salt and Our Health

Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is made up of 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. The body contains about 200 gm. of sodium chloride in varying percentages in all the tissues and fluids of the body, including the blood, lymphatic, cerebrospinal, and intra- and extra-cellular fluids. Along with potassium, it is the major regulator of fluid exchanges and many important chemical reactions. Salt is a staple ingredient in the fluids of human life.



WHY IS IT NEEDED

The sodium component of salt is vital for controlling the amount of water in the body, maintaining the normal pH of blood, transmitting nerve signals and helping muscular contraction. From the digestive point of view, sodium chloride is a necessary component of hydrochloric acid, the powerful digestive juice secreted by the stomach. It also has an anti-toxic and antibacterial action, decreasing the effects of poisons circulating in the body and helping to eliminate them. However, just because a little salt is such a good thing, it does not follow that more salt is even better. It is commonly believed that excessive salt intake provides a margin of safety against salt depletion, and that any extra salt can be easily eliminated in the urine, perspiration and faeces. This is not the case at all. Well functioning kidneys, working at their maximum capacity, only evacuate 5 gm. of salt a day.

DAILY RQUIREMENTS

Adults are advised to consume no more than 6gm salt per day (about one teaspoon). Current intake is about 9gm per day –one & a half times than is recommended for good health. Babies and children should have less salt than adults. High salt intake in babies can be especially dangerous, as their kidneys cannot cope with large amounts. The average European salt intake is 10-15 gm. per day, and in Japan it is as high as 20 gm.

WHERE DOES THE EXTRA SALT GO

One may well wonder as to where the extra salt goes because the eliminative capacity of the kidneys is generally exceeded. As the percentage of sodium chloride in the blood always remains constant, the body finds other ways of re-establishing the salt/water balance. The first way is through dilution, by increased intake of non-saline fluids. This is why we become thirsty after eating salty foods, not because of body dehydration. To dilute 4 gm. of salt, half a litre of water has to be drunk. When we drink in order to dilute salt, the extra fluid is not readily eliminated by the kidneys, and so the volume of blood increases. This raises the blood pressure and forces the kidneys to work harder to filter a larger quantity of blood.

When dilution is no longer sufficient, the salt is stored. It goes into bones, tendons, ligaments and connective tissues all throughout the body, which rapidly become clogged with salt. It is also stored under the skin, and it is this subcutaneous salt which is expelled during profuse perspiration. The tissues chosen for salt storage have the ability to decompose sodium chloride, as they absorb chloride and reject sodium. Chloride accumulates in the body for years together without any apparent perturbation, up to the time that the ultimate storage limit has been reached. Then salt becomes verily a poison.

THE DANGERS OF HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE

There are many factors which contribute to high blood pressure: the nature and lifestyle of the individual, high levels of stress, smoking and unhealthy eating habits. But the major factor is very simple - too much salt in the food.

Studies have shown that the tendency of increasing blood pressure with increasing age does not occur in populations which do not take much salt in their daily diet, and eat a lot of vegetables rich in potassium, which naturally balances salt. For example, consumption of salt in New Guinea (the second largest island in the world after Greenland) is less than 0.5 gm. a day, and blood pressure among 70 year olds is the same as it is for people in their 20's.

On the other hand, statistics reveal a direct relationship between salt consumption and cardiovascular disease in countries where salt consumption is very high. In Korea, for example, medical conditions attributable to hypertension are widespread. Hospital wards are full of people in comatose states, paralyzed by cerebral apoplexy, and many pregnancies are complicated by eclampsia (Eclampsia follows Preeclampsia, a serious complication of pregnancy that includes high blood pressure and excess and rapid weight gain) due to high blood pressure. In Japan, salt intake has also been linked to the high incidence of stomach cancer.

In modern populations, the frequency of high blood pressure increases with age. It occurs in 70% of all people over 60. Even in the population under 30, about 30% have related vascular problems. High blood pressure is not as usual in young women as it is in young men, but as age advances it becomes more frequent. The estimated additional life expectancy of a 35 year old with even slightly elevated blood pressure is the same as that of a person 20 years older with normal blood pressure; it is 24 years in both cases. In developed countries, cardiovascular impairment is responsible for almost half of the deaths, and high blood pressure is first among the factors which contribute to it.

About seventy years ago, when no medicine was available to relieve high blood pressure, doctors found that by reducing sodium in the diet, arterial pressure was very effectively lowered. This is still the first line of treatment in all high blood pressure therapy, and is much cheaper and less hazardous than taking drugs.

OTHER NEGATIVE EFECTS / POTENTIAL HEALTH EFFECTS

• High salt consumption also acts upon the mucus membranes of the breathing tracts. Among the symptoms are: repeated sneezing, frequent colds and loss of the related senses of taste and smell. When over consumption continues for an extended period, these characteristics increase and emerge as chronic coryza, swelling of the nasal mucus membranes, catarrh of the breathing tracts, nervous coughs and exacerbation of asthma.

• Negative effects on the digestive system include acidity, swelling of the salivary glands, chronic irritation of the palatal mucosa and throat, and swelling of the tonsils. Abnormally high thirst provokes an excessive intake of fluids which disturbs the digestion by diluting the digestive juices. This may induce constipation or diarrhoea, and abnormal modifications of the linings of the large intestines and anus, causing piles.

• When the kidneys are forced to filter ten times as much salt as they are designed to, the probability of kidney impairments is bound to increase. Excessive salt can also cause sexual disturbances, such as premature ejaculation in males. In females it can be responsible for pruritis (itching or irritation) of the genitals and decreased secretion of vaginal lubrication. Doctors have also found that discontinuance of salt leads to improvement of rheumatism and arthritis, and some types of ocular diseases and migraines.

AN ACQUIRED TASTE

• We overuse salt from childhood, and serious conditions derived from an excess of sodium may be found very early. One important source of extra sodium is dehydrated cow's milk, which contains three times as much salt as human milk. The water in which it is dissolved is often salted as well. Commercial baby foods are also highly salted to make them palatable to mothers as well as babies. Once the insidious habit of eating salt is acquired in infancy and childhood, it is very difficult to change.

• Food prepared commercially, even bread always contains too much salt. So begin to look around you, and look at your own eating habits. Are you sure you are not overusing salt when you prepare your food, and then pouring it on again at the table, only to gratify your salt habit? An excess of salt in our daily life pollutes our alimentation just as exhaust fumes, sewage and industrial wastes pollute our environment.

• It is said that in some monasteries, it has been possible to suppress harmful and stimulating products such as meat, fermented drinks, coffee and tea, but never has it been possible to suppress salt. The idea of reducing salt seems impossible at first. In fact, it takes only a few days before the food becomes as tasty and appetizing as before. Over-salting food is a habit, and it can definitely be broken. We can easily live with less salt, just as we can live with less sugar. The most important requirement is to have the agreement of the cook.

HOW TO REDUCE SODIUM INTAKE

• Use fresh or dried herbs and spices to flavour vegetables

• Avoid adding salt to your food when eating

• Use Soy sauce sparingly: one teaspoon contains about 0.36gmof sodium (equivalent to 0.9gm salt)

• Buy fresh or frozen vegetables, or those canned without salt

• Rinse canned foods, such as beans, to remove excess salt

• Choose breakfast cereals that are lower in sodium

• Buy low or reduced sodium versions, or those with no salt added

GOOD HEALTH WITHOUT SALT

In 1930, in his book 'A Guide to Health', Mahatma Gandhi wrote, 'Vegetarian food contains in itself enough salt, so it is unnecessary to add any other quantity. Nature has foreseen the necessary quantity of salt to keep in good health.' Gandhi states also that persons who do not add salt to their food have purer and healthier blood, which makes them more resistant to infection and disease.

'I have never been able to find any objection to stopping the use of salt, just the opposite,' says Gandhi. But he never managed to convince his wife, who used to love salt very much. 'I am convinced', he says, 'that had she been able to give up salt, she could have been cured of her sickness and would still be alive.'

Courtesy: Dr. Rita Khanna

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