On Nutrition: Do we need more sodium?

A well-meaning friend encouraged me to add an electrolyte powder into my daily water bottle.

“It’s got a lot of sodium,” she explained. “But you need extra sodium when you’re active and sweating.”

This particular product contains potassium, magnesium and sodium — essential minerals that can be lost in sweat and urine. It was the sodium content — 1,000 milligrams — that caught my attention. That’s almost half the limit of 2,300 milligrams (the amount in about a teaspoon of salt) recommended for healthy adults by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Health experts have done a pretty good job warning us that excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure — a risk for stroke and heart attack. Yet we do need an adequate amount of sodium for our bodies to function normally. Too little sodium — especially if we are drinking more water — can have serious health consequences as well.

Believe it or not, there is not enough evidence to establish one Recommended Dietary Allowance for sodium, according to the 2019 National Academies Consensus Study Report. And some experts are challenging the wisdom of requiring all Americans to consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

That’s because intense exercise and sweating may increase your need for extra sodium. Also, many people with normal blood pressure and normal kidneys are able to deal with wide variations of sodium intake without raising their blood pressure, according to a 2021 review on this topic in the journal Nutrients.

Sports nutrition experts generally recommend we replace sodium and other electrolytes along with fluids after heavy exercise that lasts an hour or more (marathon runners, for example). Plain water will generally do the trick if our activity lasts less than an hour and we eat a normal diet.

Remember too that sodium (along with other electrolytes) resides in most of the food we eat even if we never pick up a salt shaker. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 70% of the sodium in our diet comes from foods that are packaged or prepared in some way.

Milk, for example, is recommended by some sports nutritionists as an exercise recovery beverage. Why? It supplies fluid and the electrolytes potassium, magnesium, sodium, calcium and phosphorous. Milk also contains high quality protein to repair working muscles and carbohydrates to replenish energy stores.

So yes, we need sodium. And we may need more in some circumstances such as heavy water intake. But adding more sodium than we need may not be smart if we’re fighting high blood pressure.

So here’s the challenge: Consider your personal health condition. Take a few days to add up the amount of sodium you typically consume. (It’s on the Nutrition Facts label of the foods you buy.) Then discuss what you find out with your health provider.

Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to [email protected].