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Sodium & Alcohol: How Much is Too Much for a Healthy Heart?
The heart is the hardest working muscle in the body, pumping over 2500 gallons of blood a day and capable of beating more than 3 billion times over the course of a lifetime! We know that regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and abstaining from tobacco products help keep the heart healthy and strong. However the evidence is not quite so clear cut when it comes to the effects of salt and alcohol on heart health.
The RDA for sodium is 1,500 mg per day, but the average American consumes over 3,400 mg each day. It is recommended that individuals with existing heart disease monitor their salt intake, because high levels of sodium can cause an increase in total blood volume, which puts stress on the heart and blood vessels. But what about those who don’t have a history of heart problems or other medical conditions? A recent study used 10 year follow-up data from older adults, ages 71 – 80. Subjects were categorized into three groups based on their self-reported average sodium intake: those who consumed less than 1,500 mg/d, between 1,500 – 2,300 mg/d, or more than 2,300 mg/d. Researchers found that sodium intake was not associated with cardiovascular disease or heart failure. However, consuming more than 2,300 mg/d was associated with higher mortality, although not significantly.
These findings do not mean that you should ignore sodium intake completely, but they suggest that it may not have as big of an impact on some people as previously thought. It’s also important to point out that much of our salt intake comes from processed foods, which are typically less nutritious and more calorie dense than non-processed foods. Additionally, certain other medical conditions, such as hypertension, can be directly affected by high levels of sodium.
There has been much research and discussion on the heart health benefits of certain types of alcohol, such as red wine. However, one recent study examined how overall alcohol consumption, rather than specific types of alcohol, affected heart health. Over the course of 24 years, subjects were questioned on their drinking habits, and were classified as abstainers, <7 drinks/ week, 7-14 drink/week, 14-21 drinks/week, or >21 drinks/week. Men who reported drinking up to 7 drinks a week showed a 20% reduced risk of heart failure, and women showed a 16% reduction. In the next two higher drinking categories, there was no difference in risk for heart failure compared to the abstainers, but there was an increased risk for all-cause mortality in the heaviest drinkers. According to these findings, alcohol may have some protective properties for the heart. However, moderation is key, because alcohol is still considered a toxin, and too much can increase risk for developing other health issues, such as ulcers and liver problems.