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What is Sodium Chloride?

By Nick Doniger
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Sodium chloride is a necessary component of human health, and it is also known as common salt. It is meant to be consumed in minimal quantities and provides the body with electrolytes and helps muscles relax. When consumed in large amounts, it may result in unwanted health problems such as high blood pressure. Sodium chloride is found in abundance in many products, and many cultures consume what are considered to be dangerously high levels of it.

Most often, sodium chloride is found in the crystalline form known as table salt. Certain types of table salt may have slightly differing levels of sodium and chloride. Sea salt, for example, is usually lower in sodium. Processed foods, cured meats, jarred sauces and condiments, snack foods, and canned goods tend to be particularly high in salt.

A proper intake of sodium chloride has many health advantages. It is an essential component of all body fluids, including blood. As an electrolyte, salt is often found in fitness drinks. Electrolytes allow the transmission of electric signals between nerves. For this reason, salt aids in muscle relaxation. It additionally plays a role in nutrient uptake in cells.

While sodium and chloride are both essential to human health, rarely is there a problem of a shortage of either in an average person's diet. In extremely rare cases, however, too low an amount may cause muscle cramps. This may occur in very hot climates or after rigorous exercise.

Sodium chloride deficiency may be detected after experiencing persisting headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, muscle cramps, fainting, or a combination of the aforementioned. Another rare condition, known as hyponatremia, may cause the same symptoms. In extreme cases, seizures, comas, brain damage, and death may result. Hyponatremia results from sodium being flushed out of the body by extremely excessive fluid intake. Some athletes and marathon runners may be at risk of this very rare condition.

Before the advent of refrigeration, salt was necessary as a food preservative. Today, however, most cultures consume too much salt. People in the United Kingdom are particularly considered to be at risk of excess salt consumption due to the over-abundance of processed foods. It has been recommended that citizens of the United Kingdom reduce daily intake to about six grams of sodium chloride per day. This would average to about 2.5 grams of actual sodium per day.

An excess of salt in the diet may put a person at risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure. While hypertension is initially symptom-free, it may increase the chances of stroke and heart disease. Excess salt is readily absorbed into the body, though some is expelled through perspiration and urination. Infants and those who suffer from kidney disease are often advised not to have extra salt on their food, as it cannot be properly expelled through urine. A low-fat and high-potassium diet may help counteract high sodium levels, though this is not a substitute for the proper limitation of salt intake.

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Discussion Comments
By anon961041 — On Jul 14, 2014

I will keep it short and to the point. When I was 19 to 20 years old, I worked as a rodman (surveying ) in Houston. Texas. Temps were 95 to 115. I'm one of those people (and I know just a few of us) who sweat / perspire beyond belief. I know for a fact that back then if I had not found out about salt pills I would have most likely not be all here today.

I ignored the warning signs because I had no idea what could happen, until it did.

Heat stroke is really not a good description of what happened to me. the doctor might disagree, but all I know is after what happened, I found out about salt pills and it was like night and day when I got back out in that heat.

In simple terms, it felt like my energy was being kept inside me (after taking the salt pills) instead of literally feeling my energy draining from my body. And no, consuming water did not help a bit. I was sweating it out faster than my water intake could be processed.

By anon357690 — On Dec 05, 2013

Just balance it out you'll be fine.

By candyquilt — On Apr 04, 2011

I've been hearing so much on TV and newspapers about how much salt Americans consume and how bad it is for us. There are so many different things recommended that I honestly don't know what to think anymore.

Clearly, we need to have some salt for our bodily functions, but table salt has too much sodium. Sea salt has less sodium but it lack iodine, potentially putting us at risk for iodine deficiency. And then there is something called a "salt substitute" and some brand names have started making processed foods with it in place of salt. I don't even know if that substitute is completely safe.

I think there is just too much commotion over salt. Moderation is everything. Can we just eat a little bit of salt and all will be well?

By turquoise — On Apr 02, 2011

I was taught at a young age that if I spill something oily on the table cloth while eating, I should sprinkle some table salt on it immediately. What it does is that salt soaks up oil and it will help you remove the oil and prevent it from staining when it's time to wash it.

Similarly, you can use salt and warm water to clean many things around the house. I use it to clean my sinks and refrigerator, especially because salt helps get rid of those strong odors.

I also use salt and warm water to gargle my mouth, particularly after I heard that everyday use of mouthwash may cause mouth cancer (yikes!). I'm sure there are tens of other uses for salt that I don't know about yet. It's really a great and natural alternative to many of the chemical products we use at home.

By burcidi — On Apr 01, 2011

My mom has high blood pressure but also has a great love for pickles. Pickles are immensely high in sodium chloride! She literally has to take more of her medicine if she overdoes the pickles at a mealtime.

A great way to limit salt consumption is to eat unsalted foods one day of every week or one week of every month. A day per week is probably better because it will be balanced out.

What this means is that you need to cook your food at home from scratch so you know exactly what goes into it. When we eat processed foods or foods from restaurants, there is no way for us to control how much salt we intake. My mom and I have been doing the one day a week for now. As our palette gets used to it, we plan on increasing the days.

Another bad thing about too much sodium chloride in the body is that it retains a lot of water, so you literally look bloated. It turns out that when most people start a healthy diet, they lose more water than fat. When their salt consumption goes down, the body doesn't need to keep as much water anymore. It's like easy slimming. Cut the salt and cut the weight!

By behaviourism — On Mar 16, 2011

Concern for sodium chloride deficiency has led to a lot of products such as sports drinks which claim to increase an athlete's performance by giving them back salt as well as water and other nutrients. Unless you routinely run long distances or otherwise exercise for long periods of time, regular water should be fine until you eat again after your workout.

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