Employee & Community Health

What's the big deal about too much salt? 

10/29/2018 by Laurie Jo Vlasak, APRN, CNP

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As we age, our bodies gradually change, and those changes can sneak up on us. Having long-time high blood pressure, periods of being overweight or a heart attack, can weaken and stiffen your heart muscle over time, making it work less efficiently. 

Think about an aging sump pump removing water from your basement. If the pump is working continuously, it will gradually slow and become less efficient at removing water. The same applies to your heart, which is a pump. If your heart is weakened, and you have more fluid in your body, your heart has trouble pumping that fluid around. This can cause your heart pump to fail. 

Aside from medications, one of the biggest actions you can take to keep your heart pump working well is to limit your salt intake. Why? Too much salt (sodium) retains fluid in your body and causes your heart to work harder, which can lead to swollen legs, shortness of breath and other complications. 

Cutting back on salt is challenging, since it seem to be everywhere and in everything. For heart health, aim for no more than 2 grams (2,000 mg) of sodium daily. To help you reach this goal, learn to read food labels. Note which foods are high in salt and which ones are low. For example, one dill pickle contains about 1,000 mg of sodium, which is half your recommended daily allowance. Cucumber slices have no sodium. 

Here are some more tips and tricks to make it easier to start cutting back and improving your heart function: 

  • Take salt off the table. Then stop adding it when you cook. If you do these two things, you'll be successful improving heart function. 
  • Change your taste buds by using fresh herbs, garlic, onion, pepper and lemon instead of salt. 
  • Don't salt cooking water. Add a few drops of olive oil instead. 
  • Shop the perimeter of your grocery store. That's where you find fresh and frozen vegetables, meats, dairy and other less-processed food. 
  • Eat fresh or frozen vegetables, which are lower in sodium content. 
  • Avoid canned, processed or convenience foods because they use high amounts of sodium as a preservative. This includes deli meats (ham, sausage, etc.), soups, canned vegetables and prepared fresh or frozen meals. 

Can decreasing your salt intake make that much difference? Yes! Studies have shown that decreasing salt to the recommended allowance can be as powerful as a dose of medication. Begin by making one change at a time to help you stay as well as possible for as long as possible and improve your quality of life. 

Laurie Vlasak is a nurse practitioner in Employee and Community Health's Division of Community Internal Medicine. She works in the Care Transitions/Palliative Care Homebound Program with high-risk, frail individuals who have late-stage, life-threatening illnesses. Her specialties are geriatric medicine and cardiovascular care. Laurie's interests include educating patients and families to manage their conditions through self-care and promoting quality of life throughout all stages of life, with a special focus on aging.