High blood pressure, aka hypertension, is one of the most common chronic diseases plaguing us today. In fact, it’s the number one most frequent reason for a visit to the doctor’s office, and for good reason… hypertension is a major cause of stroke and heart disease, affecting approximately 1 billion individuals worldwide. According to projections, over 90% of adults in the United States will develop hypertension by age 65, but only 34% are able to return to a healthy blood pressure! That is a problem!
The first thing most people do when diagnosed with high blood pressure is to start drug treatment. While this will lower your blood pressure into a healthy range, and that will make your doctor happy, this doesn’t get to the root of the problem… it just covers up the symptom. There’s a reason your body felt the need to increase your blood pressure, and it’s not because it wants to kill you; it’s because there’s an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
There are two root causes of hypertension in most cases:
- Low potassium intake
- Weight gain
And that’s where we should target our treatment. I will get into the details of these and provide practical tips over the next couple of weeks. But today, I’d like to focus on what does NOT cause high blood pressure… sodium. This topic needs special attention, due to the excessive media attention sodium gets.
Salt is required for life.
First, you need to know that salt is a nutrient. Salt contains sodium and chloride, both of which are important for our health. Sodium is important for normal cellular metabolism and for maintaining proper fluid volume. It also plays a role in the nervous system, allowing us to move or react to our environment, among other things. Chloride is needed for stomach acid production, a necessary component of digestion and an important defense against food-borne pathogens. Salt is a nutrient that our bodies need, despite the image it gets these days.
Some of us are more sensitive to salt than others.
In reality, we all respond differently to reducing salt intake. Some experience an increase in blood pressure, others see a decrease, and still others see no change at all. Take this 1987 study, for example. Subjects had normal blood pressure to start, and their sodium intake was restricted to 1600 mg/day, a very low level. This graph shows that the change in blood pressure varied wildly depending on the person. Some people are “salt-sensitive”, while others are not. And it turns out, whether we get enough potassium has a big impact on our salt sensitivity. More on that next week.
Reducing salt too much can be harmful.
There was an article in the New York Times about this recently, click here to read it for yourself. The truth is that restricting sodium to the level that the Dietary Guidelines recommend, 2300 mg per day, can be dangerous. According to a researcher quoted in the article, “As sodium levels plunge, triglyceride levels increase, insulin resistance increases, and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increases. Each of these can increase the risk of heart disease.” In other words, following the guidelines for sodium can increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
For every study showing a benefit for reducing salt intake, there’s a contrasting study showing the opposite.
What does it all mean?
When we have this much conflicting information on salt, it means we’re missing something. I’ll break it down for you.
- Foods that are high in sodium tend to be junk foods that are also full of additives, artificial flavors and colors, sugar, and more. Think canned, boxed, and frozen foods. In fact, 80% of our sodium intake comes from processed foods… and there’s much more going on there than just sodium.
- People who eat a lot of processed food tend to eat too much food in general and are prone to weight gain (one of the main causes of high blood pressure).
- In addition to being full of sodium, junk foods are also very low in potassium (the other main cause of high blood pressure).
Hopefully that clears things up on sodium!
Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we’ll get into treating the first cause of high blood pressure: potassium!