Good or bad?  Despite the admonitions you hear about  heart disease lurking in your sodium-laden meals and the frequent vilification of your saltshaker, there is no debating the fact that salt is essential to life.

Table salt is a compound of sodium and chloride molecules. When you consume salt, the sodium combines with potassium and helps to regulate the water content of your body. Although it is not the only factor that determines water regulation, in general an increase in salt results in an increase in water retention.

In addition to helping regulate water in the human body, sodium is also vital for extracting the excess acidity from inside cells, especially brain cells. Failure to remove this excess acidity can potentially lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Sodium is also vital in the kidneys and helps to remove acidity in the blood so that it can be excreted in urine. If the acid is not removed in the kidneys the blood becomes increasingly acidic, which is toxic for other organs and systems in the body and can cause them to shut down.

Additionally, sodium has been linked to some profound effects on mental health. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati have found that sodium inhibits the release of certain hormones linked to stress and therefore lowers levels of anxiety during stressful situations. Sodium may even be a keystone in treating certain emotional and effective disorders like depression. New data suggests that sodium deficiency is linked to a higher incidence of depression.

Despite its essential and crucial role in many processes and systems in your body, salt is also vilified frequently and associated with negative impacts on health. The focus of the debate around salt revolves around the health effects of people lowering or increasing the salt intake in their diets. Throughout the 1990s, doctors and scientists were sure that raising or lowering the amount of salt in a person’s diet would directly affect their blood pressure and directly increase or decrease their risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.

Using this “salt hypothesis” was common and salt was the scapegoat for many patients diagnosed with high blood pressure. Over the last two decades, however, studies have been inconsistent and vary immensely based on the traits of the population, or people who participated in the study.

Some studies suggest that lowering salt in one’s diet has little, if any, effect on hypertension, or high blood pressure. An eight-year study of a hypertensive population in New York showed that low-salt diets resulted in four times more heart attacks than normal salt diets. Another analysis of data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey documented a 20% greater occurrence of heart attacks in low-salt diets than in normal salt diets. An analysis of data by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute showed no positive health outcomes in a low-salt diet.

In 2002, a study published in the British Medical Journal showed that significant salt reduction in a person’s diet led to very small blood pressure reductions, but this was only true in specific, sensitive populations like overweight men. Moreover, the results of the study showed that the small reduction in blood pressure had no measurable health benefits.

Some studies on specific populations demonstrate that too much sodium can cause a dangerous increase in blood pressure in people who are more sensitive to salt. It is estimated that about 10% of the population falls into this category, and that African Americans have a much higher probability of being at risk to the effects of salt. The only way to determine whether an individual falls into this category is to check their blood pressure before and after salt consumption. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also studies that show that people who have a resting blood pressure of more than 140/90, the standard used to diagnose hypertension, almost always benefit from reducing their salt intake.

So with all of the disparity of studies and results, what does it mean for you?

Regardless of the studies and disagreement over direct versus indirect health impacts, doctors tend to agree on recommendations for healthy salt intake. Salt is an essential compound – your heart cannot beat without sodium, but that does not mean you should be consuming all the fries you can find. The “hygienic safety range” for salt intake in your diet, a term coined by renowned hypertension expert Dr. Bjorn Folkow, is between 1,150 mg and 5,750 mg a day. This is, of course, dependent on factors such as a person’s genetic make-up and lifestyle. People who are highly active and those who spend a lot of time outdoors a lot usually need more sodium in their diets to compensate for salt excreted through sweat.

But as is the case with any aspect of life, moderation is key. Don’t be afraid of salt completely, just make sure you limit yourself to healthy amounts. So while there has always been confusion, myths and misconceptions about salt, science has shown that it is truly a life-sustaining mineral. Unless you’re already in an at-risk group, use salt because your health may depend on it.

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