What is sodium chloride?

Sodium chloride (NaCl), also known as salt, is an essential compound our body uses to:

  • absorb and transport nutrients
  • maintain blood pressure
  • maintain the right balance of fluid
  • transmit nerve signals
  • contract and relax muscles

Salt is an inorganic compound, meaning it doesn’t come from living matter. It’s made when Na (sodium) and Cl (chloride) come together to form white, crystalline cubes.

Your body needs salt to function, but too little or too much salt can be harmful to your health.

While salt is frequently used for cooking, it can also be found as an ingredient in foods or cleansing solutions. In medical cases, your doctor or nurse will typically introduce sodium chloride as an injection. Read on to see why and how salt plays an important role in your body.

Despite the fact that many people use the words sodium and salt interchangeably, they are different. Sodium is a mineral and a nutrient that’s naturally occurring. Unprocessed foods like fresh vegetables, legumes, and fruit can naturally have sodium. Baking soda has sodium too.

But about 75 to 90 percent of the sodium we get comes from salt already added to our foods. The weight of salt is usually a combination of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride.

The most common use for salt is in food. Its uses include:

  • food seasoning
  • acting as a natural preservative
  • enhancing the natural colors of foods
  • curing, or preserving, meats
  • creating a brine for marinating foods

There’s also a wide variety of household uses, such as:

  • cleaning pots and pans
  • preventing mold
  • removing stains and grease
  • salting roads in the winter to prevent ice

When your doctor prescribes a treatment with salt, they’ll use the term sodium chloride. Sodium chloride mixed with water creates a saline solution, which has a number of different medical purposes.

Medical uses for a saline solution include:

IV dripsto treat dehydration and electrolyte imbalances; can be mixed with sugar
Saline flush injectionsto flush a catheter or IV after medication is administered
Nasal irrigation or nasal dropsto clear congestion and reduce post nasal drip and keep the nasal cavity moist
Cleaning woundsto wash and rinse the area for a clean environment
Eye dropsto treat eye redness, tearing, and dryness
Sodium chloride inhalationto help create mucus so you can cough it out

It’s important to consult a doctor and only use medical saline products (excluding over-the-counter products like contact solution) as prescribed. Different types of saline solutions will contain different ratios of sodium chloride to water. Saline that’s used for different purposes may also have additional chemicals or compounds added in.

Although salt and sodium are different, salt is 40 percent sodium and we get most of our sodium intake from salt. Many companies and restaurants use salt to preserve, season, and flavor their food. Since one teaspoon of salt has about 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium, it’s easy to go over the daily value.

According to the CDC, the average American eats over 3,400 mg each day. You can limit your sodium intake by eating unprocessed foods. You may also find it easier to manage your sodium intake by making more meals at home.

The American Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

Low-sodium diet

Your doctor may suggest sticking to a low-sodium diet if you’re at risk for high blood pressure or heart disease. If you have heart disease, you should try to consume less than 2,000 mg of sodium per day, although the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends keeping it under 1,500 mg. Eliminating processed foods like sausages and ready-made meals may make maintaining this number easier.

Top ten low-sodium frozen meals »

Nutrient absorption and transportation

Sodium and chloride play an important role in your small intestine. Sodium helps your body absorb:

  • chloride
  • sugar
  • water
  • amino acids (building blocks of protein)

Chloride, when it’s in the form of hydrochloric acid (hydrogen and chloride) is also a component of gastric juice. It helps your body digest and absorb nutrients.

Maintaining resting energy

Sodium and potassium are electrolytes in the fluid outside and inside your cells. The balance between these particles contributes to how your cells maintain your body’s energy.

It’s also how nerves send signals to the brain, your muscles contract, and your heart functions.

Maintaining blood pressure and hydration

Your kidneys, brain, and adrenal glands work together to regulate the amount of sodium in your body. Chemical signals stimulate the kidney to either hold on to water so it can be reabsorbed into the bloodstream or get rid of excess water through the urine.

When there’s too much sodium in your bloodstream, your brain signals your kidneys to release more water into your blood circulation. This leads to an increase in blood volume and blood pressure. Decreasing your sodium intake can lead to less water being absorbed into the bloodstream. The result is a lower blood pressure.

For the most part, sodium chloride isn’t a health hazard, but in excessive amounts it can irritate your:

  • eyes
  • skin
  • airways
  • stomach

You can treat the irritation, depending on the area, by rinsing the spot with plain water or getting fresh air. Seek medical help if the irritation doesn’t stop.

Excess salt

While sodium is essential, it’s also in large amounts of almost everything we eat. Eating too much salt is linked to:

Side effects of saline solutions

Saline solutions are typically administered intravenously, or through the vein. High concentrations of saline solutions can have side effects of redness or swelling at the injection site.

Too little sodium

Sodium deficiency is usually a sign of an underlying disorder. The name for this condition is hyponatremia. It can be due to:

Excessive and continuous sweating without proper hydration is also a potential cause, especially in people who train and compete in long endurance events like marathons and triathlons.

About 75 to 90 percent of our sodium intake comes from salt, or sodium chloride. Salt provides an essential mineral (sodium) that our bodies use for functions such as maintaining blood pressure and absorbing nutrients. You can also use salt for seasoning foods, cleaning your household items, and addressing certain medical issues.

The American Dietary Guidelines suggest you eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. You can do this by eating less processed foods, like cold cuts and prepackaged foods, and cooking meals at home.

What foods have the least amount of sodium? »

Too much salt can lead to bigger health concerns like high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney disease. Lowering your salt intake while increasing how much potassium you get can help lower your risk for those conditions.

You should consult your doctor before adding more sodium chloride to your diet. Most people exceed the recommended amount, but people who drink excessive amounts of water, have persistent diarrhea, or participate in long endurance events may have sodium deficiency. In these cases, good oral hydration may help. In more severe cases, a healthcare professional may need to provide intravenous (IV) saline solution to restore hydration and electrolytes.