Fend Off Heart Failure with Sodium and Potassium: Partners in Crime

Is sodium unhealthy for your diet?

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Although many Western diets are too high in sodium, sodium is still vital for our health and, thus, should not be eliminated from our diet altogether. Professor Anding explains what sodium is and how it works in conjunction with potassium.

Salt in wooden spoons
Balanced sodium and potassium electrolytes in the bloodstream prevent irregularities in bodily functioning. Photo By Angelus_Svetlana / Shutterstock

Are Sports Drinks Unhealthy?

A lot of people are confused about sodium and its partner in crime, potassium. Because the mainstream media largely portrays sodium as unhealthy, health-conscious people tend to shun foods and beverages that are high in sodium, such as sports drinks.

“In my clinical practice, I end up going out and doing a lot of public speaking,” Professor Anding said. “I was at a local swim club not too long ago and I started to talk about sports drinks. I could feel the crowd kind of shift, and I had a mom raise her hand and say, ‘You know, I really can’t believe that you’re a sports dietician. I cannot believe you would recommend that my child drink something that’s artificially flavored, has high-fructose corn syrup in it, and has all this salt.’”

Professor Anding asked the mother to critique how much sodium was in the sports drink versus the glass of milk her daughter had earlier in the day. As it turns out, an eight-ounce serving of a sports drink has 110 milligrams (mg) of sodium, and an eight-ounce glass of milk has approximately 120 mg. The more accurate thought would be: “High sodium in relationship to what?”

Roles of Sodium and Potassium

Sodium and potassium are two electrolytes that play an important role in regulating fluid exchange within body compartments. As such, blood levels of these electrolytes are rarely affected only by dietary means, and that should make sense.

Since they are so integral for bodily function, your body needs many defense mechanisms to keep the blood values of sodium and potassium within a narrow range.

These two minerals consequently play a major role in blood pressure. Keeping blood pressure within normal range reduces your risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke. 

Sodium Excess

In general, the higher the person’s salt intake—and keep in mind, salt is sodium chloride—the higher the individual’s blood pressure, according to the USDA guidelines for Americans. This is one of the major public health initiatives.

Sodium intake in the United States regularly exceeds the recommended daily amount of less than 2,300 mg. Since sodium makes up about 40% of salt, this would be the equivalent of about one teaspoon of table salt a day. 

You might be thinking, “I don’t salt my food. I can’t possibly be getting that amount.” In fact, the typical Western diet contains about 4,500 mg of sodium, depending on the region of the United States you live in. 

“Being born and raised in Wisconsin, I might have had sodium in cured meats, but I certainly didn’t eat the spicy food that I experienced in New Orleans and in South Texas,” Professor Anding said.

Since the body actually only requires 500 mg of sodium per day, that means many of us take in almost 10 times what we need. However, it’s not practical to only consume the biological requirement. 

Many types of foods contain sodium, and some are foods you wouldn’t consider as having sodium. That 4,500 mg average is almost 20 to 30 times the amount of sodium needed to replace normal sodium loss. 

Potassium Benefits

Normally, we lose about 25 mg a day in our urine; 25 mg a day in feces; and for people who spent most of their time indoors, normal skin losses are about 100 mg per day. However, the normal skin loss amount is much higher for individuals who are physically active.

Along with this issue of sodium overconsumption is the underconsumption of its antagonist, or the mineral that acts as its counterbalance, which is potassium. Higher potassium intake helps to lower blood pressure by blunting the effects of sodium. 

Diets rich in potassium are also associated with a reduced risk of developing kidney stones, as well as the reduction of bone loss caused by age. Again, potassium and sodium work in concert with one another, and trying to get them to work in harmony is often difficult. 

Tomorrow’s article will explore the functions of these two electrolytes and also go into more detail about sodium loss during exercise.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

About Kate Findley 401 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.