For Some Women, Limiting Salt Can Drastically Lower Health Risks

From the WebMD Archives

July 31, 2001 -- For some middle-aged women, better health may simply be a salt shaker away ... as in keeping that salt shaker away.

According to a study published in the August issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, limiting salt intake offers substantial health benefits for postmenopausal women and lowers blood pressure by a surprising amount.

In fact, those women who ate only a teaspoon of salt per day reduced their blood pressure by 16 points, experiencing as much benefit as they would from some blood pressure lowering medicines.

The study looked at 35 healthy postmenopausal women with systolic blood pressures (the upper number) ranging from 130 to 159. For three months, half of them walked vigorously 30-40 minutes a day, four or more days per week, while eating their usual diet. The others limited total salt intake to less than 2,400 mg/d, while keeping their usual level of physical activity.

"We found a remarkable reduction in systolic blood pressure, produced by moderate dietary sodium restriction," study author Douglas R. Seals, PhD, tells WebMD. Seals is a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Systolic blood pressure declined in both groups. It was five points lower among the women who exercised, and 16 points lower among those who ate little salt.

"This is not a trivial change," says Stephen Siegel, MD. "[Along with the benefits of eating less salt], this study also reinforces the importance of moderate exercise. We're talking here about walking 30-35 minutes a day; it's not necessary to run a marathon." Siegel, who was not involved in the study, is a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center in Manhattan and clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine.

For middle aged and older women, he says, "if your systolic blood pressure is 110, either you don't need to limit your salt intake, or else you're already limiting it sufficiently. When your blood pressure reaches 120 you should start paying attention and avoid salty foods. When you get above 130, take it more seriously, because that is the [high] end of the normal range. If your blood pressure is above 140, you should be really serious about getting your daily sodium intake below 2,400 mg."

Twenty-four hundred milligrams of sodium is just over a teaspoon of salt. "That's tough. This is really a low-salt diet, compared to the way most people eat," says Marc Tecce, MD. "It's amazing how much sodium is present in foods we don't think of as salty foods." Tecce is a cardiologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, both in Philadelphia.

However, the benefits of making the effort and lowering salt intake can be substantial, because lowering blood pressure may reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Here's some helpful tips to limit salt intake:

  • Obviously, cook with less or no salt;
  • Use herbs and lemon juice to flavor foods instead of salt;
  • Check labels for hidden salt, especially in sauces, soups, and baked goods;
  • Limit salty snack foods such as pretzels and chips.