Blacks And Salt

Glenn Ellis
Glenn Ellis

By Glenn Ellis

(Trice Edney Wire) – The average American consumes nearly 3,400 mg of sodium per day; the recommendation for the American Heart Association is 1,500 mg per day. When there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount, or volume, of blood inside your blood vessels. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose – the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it. Over time, high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of gunky plaque that can block blood flow. The added pressure also tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body.

Reducing Americans’ intake of sodium has been an important but elusive public health goal, in this country and around the world, for many years. The U.S. population consumes far more sodium than is recommended, placing individuals at risk for diseases related to elevated blood pressure. Heart disease and stroke are the nation’s first and third leading causes of death (Cancer is second).

Let me do my best to explain some important facts about salt and your health to better understand why all the fuss about salt and sodium. We all need a small amount of sodium to keep our bodies working properly. There is a very important balance that must be maintained between sodium and potassium. Potassium is a very important mineral for the proper function of all cells, tissues, and organs in the human body. Keeping the right potassium balance in the body depends on the amount of sodium and magnesium in the blood.

Too much sodium, common in Western diets that use a lot of salt, tends to increase the need for potassium.  Diets rich in fruits and vegetables provide potassium which can blunt the effects of high sodium intake and lower blood pressure. However, less than 2% of US adults consume enough potassium and only 8.6% of children meet the guidelines for fruit intake and less than one percent of children consumes sufficient vegetables. The top sources of sodium in the U.S. diet include breads and rolls, deli meats, pizza, poultry, soups, sandwiches, cheese, pasta dishes, meat mixed dishes, such as meatloaf with tomato sauce, and the majority of snacks. Sound familiar?

The high amount of sodium in the U.S. food supply makes it difficult for Americans to not exceed the recommended level of sodium intake when consuming a nutritionally-adequate diet. The extra stored water raises your blood pressure and puts strain on your kidneys, arteries, heart and brain. Thus, a vicious cycle leading to the devastation linked to high blood pressure.

It is important to know that words salt and sodium are not exactly the same, yet these words are often used in place of each other. Sodium chloride is the chemical name for salt.

The majority of the sodium consumed is from processed and restaurant foods; only a small portion is used in cooking or added at the table. For example, the Nutrition Facts Panel uses “sodium,” whereas the front of the package may say “low salt”. Ninety percent of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt; so if you think that just not using the salt shaker during meals is the answer…think again. Salt, or sodium chloride, is used to preserve and flavor food, which is another way to say that it’s in nearly everything you eat and drink!

Have you ever wondered why they suggest you eat less salt if you are black?

Most of us have heard that this “salt sensitivity” originated during the Middle Passage, when enslaved Africans developed the ability to use this mechanism to retain water for survival from dehydration.

Blacks from the slave trade are more salt sensitive than whites and blacks in Africa. Most American blacks are descendants of the slave trade, rather than recent immigrants. Dr. Richard Cooper, at Loyola in Chicago, has conducted extensive research on this phenomena, and found that indigenous West Africans and Caribbean blacks do not have similar high rates of hypertension.

Other studies as far back as 1997, in the Journal of Human Hypertension, have shown that black people of African descent are three to four times more likely to have high blood pressure compared to white populations. Other studies, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study, have shown that reducing salt intake can lower blood pressure to a greater extent in the black population compared with the white population.

A 2005 study, in the journal Hypertension, concluded that a modest reduction in salt intake (from around 10g to 5g of salt per day) in black patients with high blood pressure resulted in both a fall in blood pressure (the major risk factor for cardiovascular disease) and urinary protein excretion (the major risk factor for renal disease and an independent risk factor for cardiovascular mortality). The fall in BP with salt reduction is equivalent to that seen with single drug treatment. It has been predicted that reducing salt intake from the current levels to 6g a day in black people of African descent could reduce their risk of a stroke by 45% and heart disease by 35 percent

These study results aside, let’s remember that Hypertension is caused by factors in addition to salt sensitivity, most importantly weight and salt intake.

Salt (sodium) has many detrimental effects on health and is considered one of the most important risk factors for high blood pressure, the consequence of which is increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.

Just by remembering to follow the daily recommendation of a maximum of one and a half teaspoons of salt per day, people of African descent can help to reduce their risk of getting high blood pressure or if they already have high blood pressure, help lower their blood pressure.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist.