Sodium image
March 15, 2021

Understanding How to Balance Sodium in Your Diet

By Sherry Dumont, RN


What I Learned from a Broken Shoulder

By Ron Thompson

We often hear that we should try to reduce our sodium intake. However, this isn’t always true, something ARTA member Ron Thompson learned the hard way. Here is his story:

It was our anniversary — Sunday, August 16, 2020. It should have been a happy day. Instead I suffered a seizure and was rushed to the University of Alberta Hospital by ambulance.

As a result of the seizure, I broke the humerus in my left shoulder and had to wait several days before surgery because of delays caused by COVID-19. I was home the next day to recuperate and do my physiotherapy exercises, and Family and Community Support Services in Leduc put me in touch with home care. Home care came every one to two days to change my dressings for two weeks. When I followed up with the surgeon after two weeks, he reported that the X-rays of my shoulder showed good healing so far. A nurse removed the remaining dressings, and I went home with three new exercises to do for the next five weeks.

Back at the hospital, doctors had determined that I had suffered a seizure as a result of low sodium. How did this happen? A side-effect of one of my blood pressure medications resulted in the depletion of sodium in my body. My medication was changed immediately at the hospital as a result of their assessment.

Sherry Dumont, a HumanaCare Registered Nurse, explains:

Sodium is an important electrolyte our bodies require to function properly. Too much sodium may be harmful, but too little can also have serious consequences. The Food and Nutrition Board recommends an adequate intake of 1,300 milligrams of sodium per day for people aged 51 to 70 and a slightly lower intake of just 1,200 milligrams per day after age 70. Adequate intake is the amount of sodium that should meet a healthy senior’s nutritional requirements.

Many people may benefit from a lower-sodium diet, such as those with salt-sensitive high blood pressure. However, even though too much sodium causes problems, eating too little can be just as unhealthy. Listen to your doctor if you have a medical condition that requires a diet low in sodium.

The body uses salt to regulate blood pressure and blood volume and to help nerves and muscles function properly. Too much salt causes a myriad of problems ranging from water retention to impaired cognitive abilities to problems with the heart, bones, and kidneys. The most notorious result of too much salt is high blood pressure, which can damage the cardiovascular system and even cause serious issues such as strokes and heart failure.

But you don’t want to cut out salt entirely; your body needs it to function correctly. Sodium helps the body retain water, aids in digestion, helps muscles and nerves work properly, keeps minerals in the bloodstream, and maintains blood pressure. Especially as we age, keeping sodium balanced can help maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce any health-related risks.

For most people, there is no clear benefit of reduced sodium diets to prevent heart disease. Some studies show that low salt diets can actually increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Other risks of a diet too low in sodium include increased insulin resistance, which can cause higher blood sugar and insulin levels and could lead to diseases like type 2 diabetes, or increased LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, which are common risk factors for heart disease. Low-sodium diets can also increase the risk of death for people with diabetes.

Sodium deficiency, also known as hyponatremia, can be a problem for seniors on medication. Hyponatremia causes nausea, mental confusion, extreme fatigue, headaches, and possible loss of consciousness. Seniors are more likely to develop a sodium deficiency if they take drugs like diuretics, painkillers, or antidepressants, or if they have thyroid, kidney, liver, or heart problems. Once the condition is diagnosed, it can typically be treated with a change in diet or medication. Talk to your family doctor and review the medication you are taking if you have any concerns about sodium deficiency or hyponatremia.

Salt is in so many of the foods we eat on a regular basis that finding the right salt intake amounts can seem difficult. Fortunately, there are some easy things you can do to monitor the salt in your diet.

  1. Cook more meals from scratch so you can control exactly what goes into your food. Prepackaged or processed foods as well as many restaurant meals are extremely high in sodium. For example, use your own oil and vinegar combination instead of a high-sodium salad dressing.
  2. When eating out, make sensible choices by looking for items that state they are low in sodium. Steamed vegetables and roasted entrees are good choices but watch the toppings and seasonings.
  3. Read labels. Some foods are extremely high in sodium and they may not even taste “salty.”
  4. Low fat does not mean no salt. “Low-fat” products are often high in sodium to add back flavour lost when fat is stripped out.

Ron’s seizure taught him how important proper sodium levels really are. He concludes: It pays to be aware of the possible side-effects of the medications you are using!

Ron Thompson taught music and French from 1967 to 1997, from Three Hills to Boyle to Edson, ending in Beaumont. Even in retirement, Ron kept teaching, spending another eight years with daycare and out-of-school-care children.

ARTACares is provided by HumanaCare, an Alberta-based health and wellness provider with more than thirty-five years of Canadian health care experience.