7 Things That Can Happen to Your Body When You Eat Too Much Salt

Plus, what you can do about it.

salt shaker and pile of salt
Photo: Kristin Lee/Getty Images

The fact that most Americans exceed daily sodium recommendations probably isn't all that surprising. "Reduce sodium" and cut back on salt" have been consistent health messages for the past several decades to try and help people stay under the recommendation of no more than 2,300 mg—or 1 teaspoon—a day. Yet, curbing salt intake isn't often a top diet priority for most unless their blood pressure is a concern (in which case the recommendation is even lower, at 1,500 mg). But maybe it should be, because blood pressure changes aren't the only effects that too consuming excess salt can have. Here's what else eating too much salt can do to your body.

7 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Eat Too Much Salt

#1 You feel puffy and bloated.

Water always follows sodium, and the kidneys use this principle to help them closely regulate blood volume and fluid in the body. So, when you eat a large amount of salt (causing blood sodium levels to rise), the kidneys compensate by retaining fluid to balance and normalize levels.

The effects are usually mild and temporary, yet still annoying: things like jeans fitting a little tighter at the waist, a puffy face or small overnight increase in weight per the scale. The solution? It seems counter-intuitive, but you should drink plenty of water (and avoid high-sodium foods).

#2 You can't quench your thirst.

Do you find yourself reaching for a water bottle a little more than normal after eating a meal out? Restaurant meals are known for being higher in sodium, but this effect isn't limited to a burger at your local diner. Any high-salt meal can trigger an intense thirst. Sensing an increase in blood sodium, receptors in the kidneys and brain trigger the thirst sensation. The body uses thirst as a protective mechanism so you'll be driven to hydrate and lower your sodium concentration.

#3 You get headaches.

If you get occasional or regular headaches, excessive salt consumption could be the culprit. Eating salt triggers an almost immediate rise in blood pressure in some people, and headaches are a common symptom of high blood pressure. But a high-salt diet can also make people with normal blood pressure more susceptible to headaches. In a 2014 study at Johns Hopkins of 400 people, researchers found those eating the highest levels of salt had the highest frequency of headaches. When salt intake was decreased, both people with normal and high blood pressure had fewer headaches.

#4 You're more prone to eczema.

The idea that salt might have a direct impact on skin irritations like eczema initially seemed far-fetched—until I started reading and understood the connection that skin has to the immune system. While that data is limited, excess salt in the diet appears to trigger the immune system to release T-cells. Research suggests that this release leads to a type of hyper-inflammatory response seen with eczema, as well as other inflammatory conditions like arthritis and asthma. The thought is that excess salt triggers inflammation, aggravating eczema similar to how allergens and irritants in the diet do.

#5 Your risk of stomach cancer may increase.

Stomach cancer is one of the six most common forms of cancer, and it's the third most deadly worldwide. Higher salt intakes are a risk factor for development of stomach cancer. Researchers don't fully understand the connection between salt and cancer, and it's not clear if all foods high in sodium have the same risk. There's some evidence that this risk may primarily stem from meats that are cured or seafood and vegetables salted and fermented for preservation.

#6 You may be more likely to get kidney stones.

Regularly consuming excess salt can make you more susceptible to forming kidney stones. This is because excess salt increases the amount of calcium in urine. Kidney stones form when calcium combines with oxalates or uric acid in urine and begin to form crystals. As these crystals get bigger, they become stones that can travel to the urinary tract and get stuck. The result is usually intense pain until that stone passes.

#7 You may increase your risk of dementia.

High levels of salt appear to increase levels of an inflammatory compound in the brain which leads to oxidative damage and begins to hinder blood flow. This is based on a 2018 study where a high salt diet was associated with causing dementia in mice. And researchers believe the effects may be similar when it comes to dementia in humans.

How to Cut Back on Salt Intake

To help slash extra sodium from your diet, try to eat at home as much as possible. Restaurant meals are laden with sodium, and cooking at home helps you to control how much salt actually goes into your food. (P.S.—Here are 5 delicious ways to cook with less salt at home—without sacrificing any flavor.) Want to start cooking lower-sodium meals? We have lots of delicious and heart-healthy meal plans to get you started.

And, if you do go out to eat, ask for your entree without salt (add it yourself at the table, if you'd like). You can also ask for your sauce or dressing on the side, and dip your fork into it rather than pouring it over your food. To help save on sodium, opt for grilled proteins rather than fried and choose veggies or salad as your side dish.

The Bottom Line

It's not that hard to go over the recommendations for salt intake, especially if you're often eating packaged foods or restaurant-made meals. That being said, salt is an extremely important component of flavor, so some is okay. Just choose whole foods more often and add salt yourself (when you can) to better control how much goes into each meal. Herbs and spices also go a long way in amping-up the flavor of foods, without the need for excess salt. And lastly, get your blood pressure checked annually by your physician to make sure it's in a healthy range.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.

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