The medical community used to suggest that pregnant women limit salt (sodium) intake in pregnancy for three reasons. One, they believed salt intake contributes to bloating. (In fact, inadequate salt intake can cause bloating.) Two, that salt would increase water retention (Salt actually helps us regulate the right amount of fluid retention). And three that it would increase blood pressure. (Some studies have actually shown that additional salt intake can lower blood pressure in pregnancy.) These all are all issues that can develop in pregnancy and the thinking went that salt would only exacerbate them.
The medical community has changed its recommendations on salt intake in pregnancy due to growing evidence of its importance in maternal and fetal health. In fact, adequate salt intake is crucial for human health and especially important in pregnancy.
The importance of salt for the body
Salt is such a key nutrient it is actually one of the five tastes for which our mouth has receptors (in addition to sweet, bitter, sour, and umami). Salt is crucial to proper enzyme functioning, hormone production, the movement of proteins, and myriad other essential bodily functions.
The importance of salt intake during pregnancy
Salt plays a crucial role in the maintenance of increased blood volume in pregnancy, which is essential in pregnancy. Inadequate salt intake can restrict blood volume and negatively impact the growth and function of the placenta. When the ability of the placenta to function is impaired, the baby's growth, development and even life are imperiled.
Insufficient salt intake can also increase the risk of preeclampsia and fetal death.
Appropriate salt intake by mom in pregnancy helps ensure adequate birth weight, optimal development of fetal nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, and metabolic function, and more.
A 2007 study illustrated that inadequate intake of salt during pregnancy increased the risk of low birth weight (with infants having correspondingly low sodium levels). Low birth weight increases the risk of many health problems later in life, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Salt is very important in pregnancy because it aids the development of glial cells in the brain and supports overall brain development and function in babies.
A 2002 study of premature babies found that those who were supplemented with sodium/salt during their first few weeks of life all experienced greater memory, learning, language, coordination, IQ and behavioral skills as children. This highlights the importance of salt in brain development.
Additional studies have found that pregnant women who consume too much or too little salt birth babies with a greater risk of kidney problems, which can also result in heart problems.
Optimal salt intake in pregnancy
Although it is important to consume enough salt, consuming too much salt and salt of poor quality (i.e. from processed foods) can also contribute to maternal and fetal health problems.
The medical community today suggests a daily salt intake of 3000 milligrams per day for pregnant women and the general population (without specific health concerns related to sodium). This means that there is no need to restrict your salt intake in pregnancy. (Unless otherwise recommended by your care provider)
All salt is not created equal
Many junk foods can contain chemical salt derivatives, such as monosodium glutamate and processed salt. These poor quality salts pose greater health risks than natural salt and can be linked to heart disease and other health problems.
When consuming salt in pregnancy (or anytime) it is best to limit processed foods and reach for natural salts, such as sea salt or Himalayan pink salt. Salting your food to taste is a general guideline that works for many pregnant women. You can also speak with your midwife about your salt intake if you are curious about the optimal amount and where you land in this range.
The important take home point is to remember that for most women, pregnancy is not a time to decrease salt intake; in fact, salt is crucial to her and her baby’s well being.