Sodium is about as essential for life as water.
Sure, too much sodium isn’t good for you, but then neither is too much of any other mineral – or water, for that matter! It’s just that too much sodium is far easier to achieve than too much of any other mineral.
We all need sodium to maintain the right amount of fluid in our body.
Not too much or too little.
That’s not the end of it. All that fluid has to be in the right places, as well as in the right balance. There is intracellular fluid (within the cells) and extracellular fluid (all around the cell).
But wait, there’s more.
It all has to be the right consistency (or osmolarity). To get this right the body requires sodium.
Too much sodium and your cells shrink, too little and your cells swell. In either of these cases, your cells can’t function properly.
Ah, if only it were that simple.
But.. it’s not! There are all sorts of hormones and enzymes that must be released in the right balance – and a lot of other minerals and ingredients – in both extracellular fluid and intracellular fluid.
But… sodium is the main one, and the release of the hormones is largely in response to rising or falling sodium levels.
But (that’s a lot of buts!) fluid balance isn’t all sodium does in the body. You also need it for good strong electrical impulses in nerve cells. That is, to get the nerves to send signals.
How Too Much Sodium Raises Blood Pressure.
Sodium must be at the right concentration in the body. Excess sodium is excreted through the kidneys.
The kidneys can deal with quite a lot of sodium. After all, we evolved in a salt water environment.
But… the ability of kidneys to do this isn’t limitless. When we have too much sodium floating around we conserve fluid in order to keep the concentration of sodium right.
This increase in overall fluid increases the total amount of blood in the body. Blood vessels can only stretch (dilate) so much in order to carry all this extra blood. When they can’t stretch anymore the pressure in the blood vessel increases.
That build up is called hypertension and it gets your doctor really worried if it gets too high.
Action Potentials and the Sodium Potassium Pump
There’s lots of potassium and not much sodium inside your cell. Outside the cell you have lots of sodium and not much potassium. The potassium ions have a negative charge, and the sodium ions have a positive charge.
This creates an imbalance between the charge inside and outside a cell. This difference is called an action potential: meaning that there is the potential for action to happen.
This happens in almost every cell in the body, but I think it is easier to understand if I talk about nerve cells.
Nerves act like energy conductors in the body. They send electrical impulses to cells in other parts of the body stimulating them to work. So that difference in positive ions outside and cell compared to inside the cell creates the potential for a message to be sent. When it’s needed, the energy is released and the message gets sent.
All this is done by moving sodium and potassium from outside to inside and inside to outside. It’s called the sodium/potassium pump. That change in concentration of sodium and potassium and the change in charge that goes with it, infinitely miniscule as it may be, is enough to stimulate action to happen.
I like to think of it rather like the starter’s gun at the beginning of a race. The same thing is happening with muscles cells. So… we need sodium for muscular contraction.
Sodium and pH Balance
pH is a measure of how ‘acidic’ or ‘alkaline’ something may be. More specifically it is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in something. The more hydrogen ions, the more ‘acidic’ something is.
One of the ways the body regulates pH is through buffers. Buffers mop up excess H’s if it is too acidic; and excess OH’s if it is too alkaline. They have weakly acid and weakly alkaline parts and have the effect of dampening down the extremes.
They don’t balance it exactly, they just dampen it down.
In our extracellular fluid, the most common buffer consists of carbonic acid and a bicarbonate salt. That bicarbonate salt is usually sodium bicarbonate. Thus it is the tendency of sodium to easily attach to a bicarbonate, and that sodium is the main electrolyte in the extracellular fluid that makes it so important in regulating pH balance. w
One of the ways excess hydrogen ions are excreted is in urine. Sodium enhances the excretion of hydrogen ions, and the more acidic the urine, the more sodium you find in it.
Sodium isn’t quite the same as table salt. Table salt is sodium chloride, and sodium is, well, just sodium. Most of the sodium in the western diet is due to the addition of sodium chloride in processing and preserving foods. Salt as a preservative was great back in the ice age when you would have some really lean hunting times so some preserved food would prevent starvation; it’s not so great now. Us humans have developed a taste for salt.
I always find that if I cut out all the processed foods from my diet, and then go back to them after a couple of weeks I can’t tolerate the amount of salt in them. When you get to this point, and you get a salt craving it’s usually because you are low, not just that your tastebuds want some.
When this happens it’s good to remember that sodium isn’t just in salt but also in milk, celery, beetroot, meat and seafood and of course in our Alkaline Booster or Alkabalance.
We lose sodium in sweat and urine, we need it for our blood, lymph, nerves, muscles, saliva, and well… staying alive.
It’s just that we only need the right amount of it, in the right balance with our other minerals. And if you find you are a bit on the acidic side, then the best option is going to be sodium bicarbonate, not sodium chloride.