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Unless your doctor has informed you that you’re deficient in potassium, the most you’ve probably heard about this mineral is that it’s good for you and is found abundantly in bananas. Perhaps it’s time to take closer look at how potassium benefits some of the most important functions of your body.
Potassium is both a mineral and an electrolyte that helps maintain nerve function and regulate muscle contractions. It also helps the body balance the fluids and minerals going in and out of the cells while keeping your blood pressure steady. Potassium’s effect on muscles is especially important for the heart, which is a muscle itself and is particularly sensitive to the mineral’s presence.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, adults should consume 4,700 mg of potassium each day to lower blood pressure, reduce salt sensitivity, and minimize the risk of kidney stones. When testing your blood, your doctor is looking for a safe potassium level, one that falls somewhere in between 2.5 and 5.0. A level higher than 6.0 is considered dangerous.
How Potassium Benefits Heart Health
As mentioned earlier, potassium is particularly beneficial to the heart. The mineral not only helps your heartbeat to stay regular, but it also helps offset some negative effects sodium has on your blood pressure. The more potassium you eat, the more sodium is lost through urine.
According to the American Heart Association, potassium can help to relieve tension in the walls of your blood vessels, which can lower blood pressure as well. And people who consume high levels of potassium in their diet also have a lower risk of ischemic stroke, but only when consumed through food and not supplements.
Potassium’s Effects on Bone and Digestive Health
A recent study conducted at the University of Surrey found that potassium benefits bone health by significantly reducing bone resorption, the process by which bone is broken down. The study also found that a high intake of potassium can reduce the excretion of calcium and acid in the urine.
“This means that excess acid is neutralized, and bone mineral is preserved,” lead author Dr. Helen Lambert from the University of Surrey stated in the study results. “Excess acid in the body, produced as a result of a typical Western diet high in animal and cereal protein, causes bones to weaken and fracture. Our study shows that [potassium] salts could prevent osteoporosis, as our results showed a decrease in bone resorption.”
The Connection Between Potassium and Your Kidneys
When it comes to maintaining a proper level of potassium in your body, your kidneys hold that important responsibility. Therefore, your kidney function can easily have either a positive or negative effect on your body’s potassium levels.
For example, if you suffer from chronic kidney disease, your kidneys may not be able to remove extra potassium from your blood, which can cause hyperkalemia. Symptoms of hyperkalemia include tingling in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, and temporary paralysis. More serious forms of the condition can cause arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and cardiac arrest.
Consuming copious amounts of high potassium foods, such as coconut water, can also cause your potassium levels increase to a dangerous level. Check out “Coconut Water Disadvantages” for more information.
Potassium Deficiency Symptoms
On the other hand, if you’re not consuming enough potassium in your diet, you can experience hypokalemia, which can cause muscle weakness, as well as spasms and cramps that are constant and quite painful. This occurs because at normal levels, potassium ensures that electrical signals in your body are not being sent to your muscles too quickly.
Arrhythmia can also be a symptom of potassium deficiency because it can cause heart cells to contract earlier than they normally would, resulting in an increase or decrease in heart rate.
People who regularly smoke, abuse alcohol and/or drugs, take diuretics, or have digestive issues are at a higher risk for hypokalemia. (See our post “How to Quit Smoking: 6 Steps to Success.”)
For more information about hypokalemia, read our article, “3 Serious Potassium Deficiency Symptoms to Watch Out For.”
You may be surprised by the wide range of foods with potassium benefits. Adding any of these foods to your diet will ensure that you reach your recommended daily intake:
- Dark, leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale.
- Fruits, such as oranges, mangoes, apricots, bananas, tomatoes and cantaloupe
- Whole grains, such as bran and quinoa
- Root vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes and yams
- Dried beans and peas
Pumpkins, squash, mushrooms, avocados, and nuts are also rich in potassium.
If your doctor recommends a potassium supplement, take only the recommended dosage as instructed to avoid hyperkalemia. People with stomach ulcers, heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease should avoid taking potassium supplements, so consult your doctor before starting a regimen.
Originally published in 2017, this post is regularly updated.