Saturday, August 10, 2013

Elevated Blood Pressure and Excess Salt in the Diet

Picture by Steven Fruitsmaak
Picture by Steven Fruitsmaak
High blood pressure or hypertension is a medical condition known for thousands of years to cause health problems. However, proper scientific knowledge and measurements started to be gathered about 250 years ago. Our current way of measuring blood pressure was developed about 100 years ago. The last 30 years has seen  major developments in medications used to treat blood pressure, showing benefits by reducing heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease. In addition, discoveries have been made in the genetic area that explain certain types of hypertension that affect some people.

The proliferation of salt additives in foods (for preservation and taste purposes) and the success of the fast food industry has increased the total amount of salt that people ingest as an average. In America, this average is 3450 mg of sodium per day. This is much more than the maximum recommended amount of 2300 mg of sodium per day.

How does Excess Salt Increase Blood Pressure? Can We Prevent it?

The body will always try to keep the concentration of sodium in the blood close to 140 mEq/L. If someone eats a salty meal, he or she has to drink water to a point that the sodium concentration would not increase. When doing this, the total volume of fluid within the veins and arteries increases. Some of this excess fluid leaks out into the interstitial spaces in between the cells. The kidneys sense this excess body fluid and send signals to increase the blood pressure in an attempt to regulate the excess body fluid. If a person keeps a state of elevated blood pressure for a long time, the heart has to work harder, the arteries can become thicker and prone to developing atherosclerotic plaques, therefore increasing the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure.

The success of diuretics (water pills) in treating elevated blood pressure in part has to do with the effect of helping the kidneys remove the excess salt. Other medications focus on dilating arteries and blocking the action of substances known to elevate the blood pressure. Some patients have certain genetic conditions that make the use of medications essential. Other patients already have hardened arteries and depend on medications to keep the blood pressure at a healthy level. However, the majority of people, specially young people would greatly benefit from limiting the amount of salt in their diets. By doing this, they will reduce the changes of the heart pumping against harder pressures and would keep arteries less hardened. 

Achieving a Low Salt Diet is not so Complicated

How to achieve a low salt diet? First of all, the goal would be to keep the intake lower than 2300 mg. The key thing to do is to monitor what is eaten. Foods have nutrition facts that should be read prior to buying food. A simple way of achieving a low salt intake is to shift away from processed food, restaurant food, fast food and refrain from using the salt shaker. in addition to this, is to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet. An interesting exercise that I invite you to do is to construct a dietary diary for a week that includes every food, drink and snack eaten. Using this information, the average daily salt intake can be calculated. The internet can be used for finding the salt content of foods. If you have further questions, contact your primary care physician.

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