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Healthy Habits: Cut Back on Salt

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Everybody needs some salt in his or her diet. Sodium is a vital mineral for health. It is primarily responsible for regulating the balance of water and dissolved substances outside our cells in our body fluids. Its counterpart, potassium, regulates fluids on the inside of our cells. Along with calcium and magnesium, these four minerals plus water form what is referred to as the "electrolyte soup" that bathes the interior of our bodies.1

Why Reduce Salt Consumption?
Although our bodies need salt, are we getting too much? The average American consumes three to five teaspoons of salt each day (7,000-10,000 milligrams).2 The actual physiological requirement – 220 milligrams a day – is only one-tenth of a teaspoon.3 Even the RDA, which many health professionals believe to be exceedingly liberal concerning salt, suggests that a safe level of intake for an adult not exceed 3,300 milligrams. This translates to 1 3/5 teaspoons. Those who know nutrition are telling us we need to cut back. There are two primary reasons why.

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)
Hypertension is a life-threatening disease. Often referred to as the "silent killer," it may exist for fifteen to twenty years without outward signs or symptoms, until one day, seemingly out of the blue, a crisis occurs. Hypertension has nothing to do with being hyper or tense, but with the pressure at which blood flows through your arteries. Excessive levels of salt in one's diet can contribute to this disease. Sodium draws water from the artery wall into the bloodstream, causing the artery to constrict while at the same time increasing fluid volume and pressure. The constant overload of salt in the typical American diet can mean consistently higher blood pressures. The more pressure, the greater the possibility of trouble.

High blood pressure has the potential to lead to a number of circulatory crises including kidney disease, heart attacks, and strokes. In Japan, where salt consumption is higher than any other place on earth, cerebral hemorrhages (strokes) are the leading cause of death.

Estimates are that as many as 60 million Americans have high blood pressure.4 That's one out of every four of us. According to Julian Whitaker, M.D., author of the book Reversing Health Risks, anything above 140/90 represents high blood pressure.5 In fact, John McDougall, M.D., suggests that an optimal blood pressure to shoot for is 110/70 or less.6

Treating high blood pressure has become big business for the medical community. According to Dr. McDougall, it has become the nation's leading reason for office visits to doctors and represents the number one health problem for which prescriptions are written. He notes that "each year Americans make about 25 million visits to their doctors to see about high blood pressure, and drugs are prescribed in 89 percent of those cases."7

Obviously, there are more natural and healthier means to deal with high blood pressure than to take drugs. Reducing salt in the diet is one. So is getting the right ratio of potassium to sodium. Eating more fruits and vegetables – potassium-rich foods – often helps to reduce high blood pressure. The standard American diet is high in animal products (meat and dairy), which are naturally high in sodium. Medical writer Jane Brody observes, "Vegetarians, who generally consume a low-sodium, high-potassium diet, tend to have considerably lower blood pressure than other Americans their age."8

Another important part of the overall strategy to lower blood pressure is to lose weight. A leaner, trimmer you makes it easier for your heart to pump blood through the miles of blood vessels in your body.

Salt reduction, then, isn't the only tool in your toolbox to help you lower your blood pressure if it's high. It is, however, the tool recommended first by most doctors. Neal D. Barnard, M.D., writes in his book The Power of the Plate, "For everyone with high blood pressure, reduction in salt intake is a first step that your doctor will recommend. Leaving the salt shaker on the shelf helps reduce blood pressure."9

Hypersensitivity to Stress
There is a growing body of evidence that excess salt in the diet leads to an increased sensitivity to the stresses of life. Dr. Gordon Tessler observes that "Salt increases the number of brain-cell receptors for norepinephrine, the nervous system hormone that prepares the body for 'fight' or 'flight' in dangerous situations. Norepinephrine sends messages from the brain to the heart (heart pumps faster), the digestive system (all organs stop digestion), and the blood vessels (vessels constrict). With more norepinephrine produced because of salt overconsumption, a person becomes increasingly nervous and edgy."10



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From HEALTHY HABITS: 20 Simple Ways to Improve Your Health by David J. Frahm as used by arrangement with Jeremy P. Tarcher, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2003 by David and Anne Frahm. All rights reserved.

To order this book visit www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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