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Health Matters: Everyone needs to beware of too much salt intake

Dr. Wynne

Q. I have high blood pressure and understand that a low sodium intake diet may help me control my blood pressure and reduce my cardiovascular risk. Is this good advice?

A. Sodium is an important component of foods because it is an essential building block of the cells in our bodies, and thus we need an intake of sodium to replenish losses. It is one of the two basic components of salt (the other being chloride).

Consuming too much salt (and thus sodium) does appear to be associated with higher blood pressure and adverse cardiac health outcomes — specifically, a higher risk of dying. So I support the general rule that people avoid excessive salt intake, especially those with high blood pressure and cardiac disease — or those at increased risk of cardiac disease.

But it is more controversial to follow a low-sodium (low-salt) diet, although this remains the “official” recommendation by U.S. government and private health organizations. Several reports over the last year or so have questioned the wisdom of a low-salt diet, and have even suggested that it may be associated with an increased mortality risk.

All people should avoid excessive salt intake, especially those with high blood pressure, heart failure, and cardiovascular disease.

How to do this? Two simple rules: Avoid food that tastes salty (soup, potato chips, etc.), and do not place the salt shaker on the supper table. Beyond that, I don’t ordinarily urge patients to spend much effort on trying to limit their salt intake further; it is hard to do (because foods may taste too bland), and its benefits are uncertain. So don’t overdo the salt, but don’t work too hard to underconsume it either.

Q.  I will be traveling overseas and am concerned about the Ebola outbreak. How worried should I be?

A.  Ebola is a viral infection found in East and Central Africa that has already killed more than 1,000 people recently. It is spread by direct contact with an infected person, and although there are promising vaccines and antiviral treatments under study, supportive care is all that is available to treat the infection. Nevertheless, supportive care appears to substantially reduce the fatality rate, which is exceedingly high in the current outbreak.

The greatest risk to an international traveler is contact with an infected person. So you should certainly avoid travel to areas in Africa hard-hit by the current epidemic. For further details, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website at

As far as contact with infected individuals in airports or during your flight, you’ll have to rely on the containment efforts of the U.S. and other governments and international organizations that have banded together to formulate a Global Health Security Agenda. Overall, your risk of contracting Ebola appears to be low at present, but certainly stay tuned for new recommendations if the world situation deteriorates further.

Wynne is vice president for health affairs at UND, dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a professor of medicine. Submit a question to Health Matters at or Health Matters, 501 North Columbia Road, Stop 9037, Grand Forks, ND 58202-9037. Remember, no personal details, please.