by Grayson Burgess
The NRI’s fourth annual Virtual Internship Program (VIP) concluded on July 20 with 21 high school students from around the country presenting their research on the nutrients of their choice. Their research papers have been compiled into a journal, which you can view here.
Grayson Burgess is a rising senior at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, NC. He concluded the Virtual Internship Program with exceptional results. His presentation and paper were ranked in the top 3 by NRI faculty and staff. His chosen nutrient was sodium. Here is Grayson’s paper.
To know a little bit about me before diving into this paper: I am a rising senior at AL Brown High School and in my free time I like to enjoy many outdoor and sport-related activities. Being an Eagle Scout and athlete, what I consume is a big part of my lifestyle as far as how far my body is able to take me in my pursuits. This ignited a passion inside of me for nutrition and how certain foods and nutrients affect my body and brain. In this paper, I will answer some basic questions about sodium, then discuss a research article of my choice about sodium.
What is Sodium and Where is it Found?
For the longest time, I used sodium and salt interchangeably, and while salt contains sodium, they are not necessarily the same thing. Salt is the chemical compound sodium chloride (NaCl), meaning sodium isn’t necessarily table salt since it is an element in and of itself (Na).
This being said, sodium is a mineral and an essential one at that. It is found in most foods which is good news considering our bodies need it in a properly balanced diet.Sodium is generally found in higher quantities in processed, prepared, and preserved foods like processed meats, soups, cheese, soy sauce, baked goods, nut butter, pickled cucumbers, etc. And found in lower amounts in foods like fresh unprocessed meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, and many dairy products (varies).
While sodium is the element of discussion here, it is important to note that it is found in many different chemical compounds throughout nature. Some examples include sodium chloride in salt water (such as mineral springs, seawater, and salt lakes), sodium carbonate (washing soda), sodium nitrate, sodium borate, and sodium sulfate to name a few. Because of sodium’s highly reactive nature when it is by itself, it is not found in its metal form in nature.
Why is Sodium Important and How Much Do You Need?
Sodium is one of those tricky nutrients where you could read an article about how your body needs sodium for a lot of good reasons, and then click on an article right after that which says that you need to consume less sodium. So, this begs the question, should you consume a lot or a little? The answer generally lies somewhere in the middle but ultimately depends on the person and their lifestyle.
Our bodies use sodium to maintain the balance of fluids in the body and considering our bodies are made of 55-60% water, it is safe to say that sodium is essential to the homeostasis of our bodies. Sodium is regulated by our kidneys which regulate how much sodium should be expelled in our urine or kept in the body, but sodium can also be excreted through our skin in our sweat. Our brains, as complicated and beautiful as they are, will signal to our bodies the feeling of thirst when it is trying to maintain the balance between our water composition and sodium supply. Although research says that we should be drinking water even before we feel thirsty.
Sodium is also responsible for a lot of the electrical events in our bodies (which mainly take place through neurons firing muscles e.g. the heart pumping) because it is a nutrient that produces electrically charged ions. The reason why high-sodium consumables like sports drinks, salty snack bars, pickle juice, and spoons of mustard are so common among athletes is because of the role that sodium plays in our bodies as an electrolyte.
On the contrary, sodium can very easily be consumed in too high of amounts, especially if you eat out a lot or have an unbalanced diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle. Too much sodium consumed on a consistent basis can lead to too much fluid being retained in the circulatory system causing high blood pressure (although there are other factors to be taken into account). Too much sodium can also lead to a myriad of complications including heart disease, stroke, gastrointestinal issues, dehydration, lethargy, muscle spasms, osteoporosis, etc. It should be noted that many of the same issues take place when not enough sodium is consumed, so you have a double whammy.
So how do you know how much you should be taking? The FDA recommends that the sodium intake for the average American should fall right around 2,300mg or less per day depending on the age, lifestyle, and sex of the individual. Fun fact, the average American eats over 1000mg per day of sodium more than what is recommended. So if you don’t know if you’re consuming too much or not enough, there is a higher chance that you might be on the side of consuming sodium a little over what is recommended for a balanced diet.
Research Article and Discussion
A systematic review and meta-analysis sourcing data from the likes of the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform, Medline, the Latin American and Caribbean health science literature database, etc sought to assess the effects of a decreased sodium diet on blood pressure, sodium-related heart diseases, and more. In this systematic review and meta-analysis, the selected studies were randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies that used the non-acutely ill ranging from adults to children.
The researchers pointed to the results as high-quality evidence that found that there were no significant effects of a low-sodium diet on blood lipids, catecholamine levels, or renal function in adults. They also found that the low-sodium diet reduced blood pressure in both adults and children (the adult study was listed as high-quality evidence for the findings and the child study was listed as moderate-quality evidence for the findings). The researchers also recognized the association between a low-sodium diet with a decreased risk of fatal coronary heart disease and stroke in adults.
The results of this research are significant because they pose as an opponent to the average American diet according to data by the FDA. In data from the FDA, we can see that the average American is consuming more sodium than what they should per day. And this research study promotes the benefits of having a diet lower in sodium, which, keep in mind, didn’t even consider Americans with existing acute illnesses that could potentially increase their risk of being greater affected by the over-consumption of sodium.
This study personally grabbed my interest because of its interesting and valuable findings. High cholesterol runs in my family and my genes unfortunately didn’t want me to be any different, so at the ripe age of 18, being involved in intense activities regularly and including a well-balanced diet, I have high cholesterol. So even though salt is not necessarily associated with cholesterol, I still have to watch what I eat and that can sometimes involve foods typically higher in salt (like butter, fried foods, baked food, etc). This is actually funny because my brother is a pre-diabetic and has reactive hypoglycemia which we think is what gave him his dysautonomia. He is as fit and active as I am… okay maybe I am a bit stronger. Nonetheless, he has to avoid sugary foods but constantly consumes the necessary high amounts of sodium for his very low blood pressure. All of this being said, it is interesting to me to connect the findings of this study with my own experience and the experiences of others to come to the ultimate realization that goes a little bit beyond sodium: You and I’s nutritional needs might be true for us, but not necessarily for everybody. Having general information is great, it is truly amazing, but we each need to monitor our nutrition to our own body’s unique needs and lifestyles.
If I had my own lab right now and were blessed with the opportunity to conduct my own research on sodium, I would definitely study the optimal time, way, and quantity to consume sodium around high-intensity exercise. My reason: if there is any other way to avoid the taste of pickle juice, mustard, and cubes of salt without having to consume 50% of my body’s daily intake of sugar through Gatorade just to avoid those muscle-ripping cramps after football practice, I want to know.
Sodium is one of the most important minerals in all of the human body, but like everything else, it should be consumed in the right amounts, according to your own body’s needs. Sodium is found in many foods but is much higher in foods that contain a lot of salt. It is kept in balance through our kidneys and sweat and mainly acts to provide electrical ions to our neurons and keep the balance in our body’s fluids.
Nutrition, Center for Food Safety and Applied. “Sodium in Your Diet.” FDA, 2 Apr. 2020, www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet#
“Salt and Your Health, Part I: The Sodium Connection – Harvard Health Publications.” Harvard Health, 1 Oct. 2010, www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/salt-and-your-health
Gordon, Barbara. “Is Sodium the Same Thing as Salt.” Www.eatright.org, 8 Aug. 2019, www.eatright.org/health/essential-nutrients/minerals/is-sodium-the-same-thing-as-salt.
“Sodium (Na) – Chemical Properties, Health and Environmental Effects.” Www.lenntech.com, www.lenntech.com/periodic/elements/na.htm
“Tame Your Salt Habit.” Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/sodium/art-2004547 9
Patel, Hiral. “15 Sodium Rich Foods – Benefits & Risks.” HealthifyMe – Blog, 23 Jan. 2022, www.healthifyme.com/blog/sodium-rich-foods/.
Strazzullo, Pasquale, and Catherine Leclercq. “Sodium.” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 5, no. 2, 6 Jan. 2014, pp. 188–190, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951800/, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.113.005215.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sodium.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 Dec. 2019, www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/sodium.htm.
Aburto, N. J., et al. “Effect of Lower Sodium Intake on Health: Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses.” BMJ, vol. 346, no. apr03 3, 3 Apr. 2013, pp. f1326–f1326, www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f1326, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1326.