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11 Reasons Why Your Body Needs Potassium For Good Health

Why Does Your Body Need Potassium?

Adequate intake of potassium (4,700 mg a day for an adult) is essential to keep the heart healthy. It counters the ill effects of sodium and lowers blood pressure. A high intake can lower the risk of ischemic stroke, kidney stone formation, and diabetes. Potassium also prevents bone loss and maintains proper muscle function.

Potassium is one of the most important minerals in your body, present in every cell. While it is found in a variety of foods, many people don’t get enough, especially if they skip on fresh produce to consume high amounts of processed foods. Potassium plays two vital functions at the cellular level:

  • Maintains fluid volume within the cell, which keeps the cell healthy
  • Maintains an elctrochemical gradient across cell membranes, which helps in the transmission of nerve signals, muscle contraction, and kidney function

By virtue of these two roles, potassium helps maintain cardiac health, fluid regulation, and cell function. So a deficiency of the mineral is cause for concern.1 2 Here’s a look at the importance of potassium in our body.

1. Maintains Heart Muscle Function

Perhaps the most vital role potassium plays is in maintaining proper heart function. It helps muscles function optimally, including the vital ones that power the heart. Having a potassium deficiency raises the risk of heart failure and left ventricular hypertrophy, where the muscle walls of the left ventricle become too thick or large, causing it to lose elasticity and pumping strength over time. Another potentially fatal effect is ventricular arrhythmia or irregular heartbeats in those with ischemic heart disease – a condition where blood flow, and hence oxygen supply, to the heart is less than normal.3

2. Lowers Blood Pressure

One easy way to cut down on your sodium intake and up your potassium levels could be to use potassium salts instead of your table salt. But before you make this shift, have a word with your doctor, especially if you are on hypertension medicines.

While a high potassium: sodium ratio is considered good for the heart, the average American diet ends up providing a lot more sodium than potassium, leading to high blood pressure. Patients of high blood pressure are always advised to lower their salt intake. But increasing their potassium intake alongside it has also been found to be beneficial. A few studies have found that increasing potassium intake through food or supplements may lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in people with hypertension, with the systolic blood pressure dropping more than the diastolic one. Potassium reduces blood pressure by helping dilate the blood vessels and increasing the excretion of sodium via urine, thus reducing the blood volume. This is why the DASH diet to lower blood pressure includes foods rich in potassium. In fact, the DASH diet suggests having 3 times as much potassium as found in the average American diet.4

3. Lowers The Risk Of Stroke

Foods rich in potassium typically also have a whole lot of other nutrients like vitamins, minerals, proteins, and healthy fats essential for good health.

Research also indicates that having a diet rich in potassium can help lower the risk of stroke significantly and not just by lowering blood pressure. A high potassium intake also prevents arterial stiffness. An 11-year-long study on perimenopausal women found that those who had a high potassium intake had a significantly lower risk of ischemic strokes (caused due to a blockage in a blood vessel supplying to the brain). However, while increased potassium intake did lower total mortality, it did not seem to lower the risk of stroke in women with high blood pressure. The researchers suggested that “higher potassium intake may be of more benefit before hypertension develops.”5 6

4. Prevents Bone Loss

Several acids in your body claim the calcium you eat through food, leading to bone loss. Potassium can prevent or slow down bone loss by lowering urinary calcium loss and improving calcium balance in the body. Consuming adequate levels of potassium can help reduce your risk of bone diseases like osteoporosis.7

5. Prevents The Formation Of Kidney Stones

It seems that your risk of developing kidney stones is linked with the amount of potassium you eat. The lower the potassium intake, the higher the risk of kidney stones in the form of calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate. Low potassium intake hinders calcium metabolism in the kidney and increases the excretion of calcium through urine, eventually causing kidney stones.

Can potassium help when you already have kidney stones? That’s not clear yet. When people with kidney stones were given a potassium citrate salt for 3 years, they had significantly reduced kidney stone formation than those on placebo. However, researchers think that the citric acid salts could have played a bigger role in this case than just potassium.8 9

6. Prevents Diabetes

If you are on diuretics for a long time, especially those containing thiazide, keep your potassium levels optimum to prevent diabetes.10

Even blood sugar levels are positively impacted by the mineral. Since potassium is required for insulin secretion from the pancreatic beta cells, low potassium levels have been linked to increased glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes in the long run. Interestingly, this effect is more pronounced in African Americans, who tend to have lower potassium intake, than in whites. While a high intake of potassium early in life can prevent diabetes, do note that it may not be wise to have too much potassium in advanced stages of diabetes due to poor kidney function.11

7. Balances Your Metabolism

Potassium helps in the metabolic conversion of nutrients like fats and carbohydrates. This mineral is therefore of great value in extracting energy from nutrients that are consumed. Studies have shown that potassium is also elemental in the coalescence of proteins, which directly impacts tissue regeneration and cell growth and ensures an overall healthy, balanced metabolism.12

8. Prevents Muscle Cramps

Potassium helps transport calcium into cells via sodium-potassium pumps, helping in the contraction of muscles, including smooth, cardiac, and skeletal muscles. So adequate potassium levels are required to prevent muscle cramps.13

9. Maintains Optimum Fluid Levels

As it is an important electrolyte in the body, potassium helps maintain an optimal fluid balance in your body. Different types of cells require an appropriate water balance to be productive, and potassium assists these cells in maintaining that balance.14 This is why athletes are given bananas to replenish their potassium levels and balance their fluid levels.

10. Transmits Nerve Signals

Being an essential component of the sodium-potassium pump in neurons, potassium helps in the transmission of electric signals from the nerve cells to the rest of the body. That is why a lack of potassium may cause nerves to fire erratically, leading to confusion or sudden involuntary muscle movement. Lack of potassium may even lead to psychosis.

11. Balances Your Mood

This is probably something you did not know. Potassium has a role to play in the regulation of serotonin, the hormone associated with happiness. That is why doctors may advise you a low-sodium high-potassium diet to help battle your stress.15

Potassium Deficiency Affects The Heart And The Nerves

If you don’t get enough potassium, your body will start to let you know in a few different ways – especially in areas where it plays a central role, like chemical and electric processes and muscular function (including the heart). A deficiency may cause abnormal heart rhythms, increased blood pressure, and weakened muscles.16But because potassium is so widely available, you are hardly at risk for deficiency.

To detect low potassium levels, watch for these symptoms of hypokalemia:17

  • Palpitations, feeling like your heart is skipping a beat
  • Feeling more fatigued than usual
  • Constipation
  • Spasms or weakness and damage to muscles
  • Numbness and tingling

Adults Need 4,700 mg Potassium Per Day

Adults need to take about 4,700 mg per day, while children should have anywhere from 3,000 and 4,500 mg depending on how old they are, and infants can make do with just 400 mg. Lactating mothers require a little more potassium, with recommended levels at 5,100 mg daily.18

Normal adults should have 4,700 mg a day. But if you are lactating, have Crohn’s Disease, or eat a high-sodium diet of salty and processed foods, you need more than that.

It’s important to note that potassium intake isn’t solely dependent on recommended daily allowances linked to health and demographic profile. Potassium also needs to be in balance with other minerals in your system, including magnesium and sodium. If your diet is high in sodium (if you eat a lot of salty foods or have processed or packaged foods and meats), you may need to compensate for this by taking more potassium.

Keep in mind that potassium levels can drop due to heavy sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, or malnutrition. If you’ve experienced any of these, you should consult a doctor and up your intake to compensate. Laxative or diuretic intake may also cause a significant decrease in levels.19 People with conditions that create a deficiency of potassium, like Crohn’s disease or adrenal gland disorders, may also need to take more potassium.20

The Top Potassium-Rich Foods

Potassium is easily available, and in high quantities in these foods, so getting your daily dose without supplementation shouldn’t be too difficult. Grill some fish and enjoy with a salad or vegetables on the side, or toss up a nice light meal using a combination of these ingredients below!21

  • Meats and poultry
  • Fish like flounder, tuna, and salmon
  • Fruit like bananas, melons, or citrus, and dried fruit
  • Vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and leafy greens
  • Legumes
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Dairy products

Too Much Potassium Causes Hyperkalemia

Hyperkalemia or excess potassium in the body could happen if your kidneys, responsible for purging excess potassium from your body, aren’t functioning optimally due to renal disease. Too much potassium could also be caused by tumors, adrenal gland disease, or intake of certain blood pressure-lowering medications (ACE inhibitors/angiotensin receptor blockers). You could also have high levels in the body if you’ve experienced major burns, undergone surgery, or abused alcohol or drugs. High intake of potassium via salt substitutes or supplements may also cause excessive levels in the body.22

If you are eating a normal diet, chances of hyperkalemia are low. But there can be an excess in the body if your kidneys aren’t flushing the potassium out.

If you have too much potassium in your system, you may experience:

  • Nausea
  • Weak, irregular, and slowed-down pulse
  • Collapse if your heartbeat slows down too much; in some cases, the heart may even stop23

But normal dietary intake within recommended levels should not be a problem.24 So get in potassium naturally through food sources as much as possible. Remember, it’s something your body needs to stay in good shape!

References   [ + ]

1, 16, 18. Potassium in diet. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
2, 4, 9, 11. Potassium. Office of Dietary Supplements.
3, 10. He, Feng J., and Graham A. MacGregor. “Beneficial effects of potassium on human health.” Physiologia Plantarum 133, no. 4 (2008): 725-735.
5. Hunt, Benjamin D., and Francesco P. Cappuccio. “Potassium intake and stroke risk: a review of the evidence and practical considerations for achieving a minimum target.” Stroke 45, no. 5 (2014): 1519-1522.
6. Seth, Arjun, Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, Victor Kamensky, Brian Silver, Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, Ross Prentice, Linda Van Horn, and Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller. “Potassium intake and risk of stroke in women with hypertension and nonhypertension in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Stroke 45, no. 10 (2014): 2874-2880.
7. Weaver, Connie M. “Potassium and health.” Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal 4, no. 3 (2013): 368S-377S.
8. Barcelo P, Wuhl O, Servitge E, Rousaud A, Pak CY. Randomized double-blind study of potassium citrate in idiopathic hypocitraturic calcium nephrolithiasis. J Urol 1993;150:1761-4
12. Cannon, Paul R., Laurence E. Frazier, and Randolph H. Hughes. “Influence of potassium on tissue protein synthesis.” Metabolism 1 (1952): 49-57.
13. Cheng, Chih-Jen, Elizabeth Kuo, and Chou-Long Huang. “Extracellular potassium homeostasis: insights from hypokalemic periodic paralysis.” In Seminars in nephrology, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 237-247. WB Saunders, 2013.
14. Popkin, Barry M., Kristen E. D’Anci, and Irwin H. Rosenberg. “Water, hydration, and health.” Nutrition reviews 68, no. 8 (2010): 439-458.
15. Torres, Susan J., Caryl A. Nowson, and Anthony Worsley. “Dietary electrolytes are related to mood.” British journal of nutrition 100, no. 05 (2008): 1038-1045.
17, 19. Low potassium level. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
20. Potassium. University of Maryland Medical Center.
21. Potassium lowers blood pressure. Harvard Health Publications.
22, 23, 24. High potassium level. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.