Sodium: How Much is Too Much?
If there is one essential nutrient that is incredibly misunderstood - it’s sodium, or salt. It is a micronutrient that has been given a bad reputation by doctors and bro-scientists alike, much to the detriment of the general population. Here, I’ll break it all down, giving you all the information you need to know, including why sodium is essential to athletes and bodybuilders alike. When it comes to NaCl (that’s table salt in science speak), let this article flavor your opinions. (Ahem - see what I did there?!)
What is Sodium?
When we talk about sodium here, we are referring to sodium chloride, or table salt. A naturally-occuring compound, not only does sodium chloride enhance the flavor of foods, but it also acts as a food preservative, preventing the growth of bacteria. Almost any food or beverage will have at least a little natural salt in it, but because of its ability to act as a preservative and flavor-enhancer properties, manufacturers will add salt to their products, ramping up the sodium counts in some instances to astronomical numbers. It’s the abuse of sodium and over-consumption of processed foods (laden with sodium) in America that has perhaps led to the mineral being blacklisted from the “healthy” category, even though we all (and especially bodybuilders) need it..
Why do we Need it?
The two minerals that table salt is composed of - sodium and chloride - are both essential minerals crucial to a number of bodily functions. They are also both also electrolytes, which means they conduct electrical currents, making them essential to everything from nerve impulses to fluid balance. More on that later.
Sodium regulates muscle contractions, nerve functions, blood volume, and blood pressure. It regulates the amount of water both inside and outside our cells, to ensure homeostasis. It conducts electrical currents across inter-cellular membranes, making it crucial to nerve firing. Clearly, sodium is incredibly important for everyone from the average person to the professional athlete.
A lack of sodium can certainly lead to negative if not dangerous side effects. It can cause everything from excessive cramping, to pain, to a condition called respiratory acidosis, where carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, causing blood to become more acidic. In extreme cases of low sodium levels, hyponatremia is a condition whose symptoms include dizziness, lethargy, confusion, or even seizures.
Intake - What’s healthy? Why does it vary from person to person?
In healthy individuals, sodium levels are regulated by organs in the body. For the purposes of everyday functioning, 1500-3400 is sufficient, and seems to be the norm. It’s when talking about athletes, that sodium levels change.
Figure that an athlete who operates at a moderate to intense level of exertion loses about two pounds of sweat (water and sodium) per hour of exertion. The amount of sodium in sweat is around 600 mg/lb (and up to 1100 mg/lb), meaning that for an hour of work, you could have depleted your body of 1200 mg. Based on that math, it’s safe to say that depending on how intensely you are exerting yourself, and for how long, you should count on replenishing your sodium accordingly. Not doing so will not only negatively impact your performance, but also endanger your health.
When it comes to micronutrients, definitely don’t count sodium out.