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Sodium (Na)

What is sodium?

Sodium is a nutrient that our bodies need for fluid balance, muscle function, and other essential processes. Sodium is also called an electrolyte, because it generates an electrical charge in the body. Since we cannot produce sodium by ourselves, we must get it through our diet.

Why we need it

One of the major functions of sodium is regulating fluid balance. Sodium draws water out of our cells and into our bloodstream, which helps increase our blood volume (and thus, blood pressure). When our blood pressure becomes too low, our kidneys limit how much sodium is excreted through the urine, which helps our blood pressure return to a normal level.1

We also need sodium to keep our muscles functioning properly. Sodium works with potassium (another essential nutrient) to maintain the cell membrane potential, which is the difference in electrical charge inside versus outside of our cells.2 This movement of sodium and potassium across our cell membranes is essential for transmitting nerve signals and generating muscle contractions.2

Where it’s found

Sodium is abundant in foods, so you should have no trouble getting enough of it. Most of the sodium we eat is from processed or packaged foods. This includes things like deli meat, cheese, chips, and crackers. Additionally, sodium is found in many condiments, including soy sauce, salsa, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings. Sodium is also present in milk, bread, and many canned foods (e.g., beans, soups, and vegetables). Fresh fruits and vegetables tend to be quite low in sodium. Celery is one exception, as it’s naturally higher in sodium compared to most vegetables.

Daily requirements

The daily recommended amount of sodium is 120-370 milligrams (mg) for infants, 1000-1200 mg for children aged 1-8 years, 1500 mg for people aged 9-50 years, 1300 mg for people aged 51-70 years, and 1200 mg for people over the age of 70.3

Most people consume well beyond these recommended amounts. In the United States, more than 80% of women and more than 90% of men consume excessive amounts of sodium.4

Sodium deficiency

Since sodium is so prevalent in food, deficiency is very rare. Nonetheless, it is possible. Sodium deficiency (also called hyponatremia) is usually caused by medical conditions like kidney disease or heart failure.5 It can also be caused by excessive sweating, diuretic use, or drinking too much water (which can dilute sodium in the body).5 Symptoms of sodium deficiency include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramping. It can also lead to seizures or coma in severe cases.5

Can you get too much sodium?

Sodium can be harmful when consumed in high amounts. Excess sodium consumption can increase your risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension is linked with many negative outcomes, including heart disease, stroke, pregnancy complications, and kidney disease.6

We are recommended to consume no more than 2300 mg of sodium per day. This number is the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction Intake (or CDRR), which is the maximum amount of a nutrient that is recommended to minimize chronic disease risk.3

Fun facts

The terms sodium and salt are often used interchangeably, although they are technically not the same thing. Salt is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride (another essential nutrient). For reference, one teaspoon of salt provides about 2300 mg of sodium.

Sodium is added to processed food for many reasons, beyond just flavor. For instance, sodium can contribute to the texture, color, and shelf life of foods.6 Sodium also supports fermentation, as it helps ward off harmful bacteria. This is why many fermented foods (e.g., salami, pickles, and cheese) have a strong salty taste.7

References

  1. Rossier, B. C., Baker, M. E., & Studer, R. A. (2015). Epithelial sodium transport and its control by aldosterone: the story of our internal environment revisited. Physiological reviews, 95(1), 297–340.
  2. Pirkmajer, S., & Chibalin, A. V. (2016). Na,K-ATPase regulation in skeletal muscle. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 311(1), E1–E31.
  3. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538102/
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
  5. Adrogué, H. J., Tucker, B. M., & Madias, N. E. (2022). Diagnosis and Management of Hyponatremia: A Review. JAMA, 328(3), 280–291.
  6. Mayne, S. T., McKinnon, R. A., & Woodcock, J. (2021). Reducing Sodium Intake in the US: Healthier Lives, Healthier Future. JAMA, 326(17), 1675–1676.
  7. Lin, X., Tang, Y., Hu, Y., Lu, Y., Sun, Q., Lv, Y., Zhang, Q., Wu, C., Zhu, M., He, Q., & Chi, Y. (2021). Sodium Reduction in Traditional Fermented Foods: Challenges, Strategies, and Perspectives. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 69(29), 8065–8080.

Dietary supplement

You can use a dietary supplement of Sodium (Na) if you think your diet lacks this nutrient.

Use the list below to check if your diet has enough Sodium (Na) intake.

Food high in Sodium (Na)

This list shows food that are top sources of Sodium (Na) and the quantity of Sodium (Na) in 100g of food

Sodium (Na)
RDA
1800 mg
78%
476 mg
21%
403 mg
18%
239 mg
10%
218 mg
9%
177 mg
8%
90 mg
4%
80 mg
3%
79 mg
3%
78 mg
3%
75 mg
3%
66 mg
3%
66 mg
3%

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Food
Fruit Vegetables Meat Dairy Eggs Bread Superfood Legumes Cereals Nuts and Seeds Seafood Other Spices and Herbs
Macronutrients Carbohydrate Fat Protein Water Fiber
Vitamins Thiamin (B1) Riboflavin (B2) Niacin (B3) Pantothenic Acid (B5) Pyridoxine (B6) Folate (B9) Cobalamine (B12) Ascorbic Acid (C) Vitamin A Vitamin K Vitamin E Vitamin D
Minerals Calcium (Ca) Iron (Fe) Magnesium (Mg) Phosphorus (P) Potassium (K) Sodium (Na) Zinc (Zn) Copper (Cu) Manganese (Mn) Iodine (I) Selenium (Se) Fluoride (F)
Amino acids Arginine Histidine Lysine Aspartic Acid Glutamic Acid Serine Threonine Asparagine Glutamine Cysteine Selenocysteine Glycine Proline Alanine Isoleucine Leucine Methionine Phenylalanine Tryptophan Tyrosine Valine