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Why Does Your Body Need Potassium?

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Why Does Your Body Need Potassium?

Potassium is essential in keeping the heart healthy and the bones strong. It also helps maintain normal muscular function and blood pressure. A deficiency of the nutrient could lead to fatigue, muscular spasms, cramps, or even palpitations (when it feels like your heart is skipping a beat). These are just a few reasons to make sure you get your recommended daily level of potassium.

Are you getting enough potassium every day? While this electrolyte is present in a variety of foods, many people are not getting enough of it, especially if they’re skipping on fresh produce (which often contains adequate amounts of the nutrient) to consume high amounts of processed foods. Since potassium is essential to cardiac health, fluid regulation, and cell function, a deficiency of the mineral is cause for concern.

Why Does Your Body Need Potassium?

Your body needs potassium to function normally, making this nutrient an important one, down to every last cell. You need it to build protein and muscle and break down carbs so they can be used for energy. It’s also essential in maintaining normal body growth.1 But that’s not all.

1. To Keep The Heart Muscles Work Best

Perhaps the most vital role potassium plays is in keeping the heart working properly. It helps muscles function at an optimal level, including the vital ones that power the heart. It also lowers blood pressure. This is why many believe potassium can help reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease. Having a 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 risky effect is ventricular arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats in those with ischemic heart disease.2

2. To Lower The Risk Of Stroke

While fiber is often touted as an essential nutrient for improving cardiovascular health, research also indicates that having a diet rich in potassium and magnesium can help lower the risk of stroke, especially in males who have hypertension.3

3. To Prevent Bone Loss

Potassium is also key to good bone health and can prevent or slow down bone loss by lowering urinary calcium loss (a nutrient needed for bone-building) and improving calcium balance in the body. Consuming adequate levels of potassium can help reduce your risk of bone diseases like osteoporosis.4

4. To Balance The Blood Sugar Levels

Even blood sugar levels are positively impacted by the mineral. Low potassium levels have been linked to increased glucose intolerance. Anyone consuming thiazide diuretics to treat high blood pressure should take the daily recommended amount of potassium to prevent the progress or development of diabetes.5

What Happens If You’re Deficient?

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.6

To detect low potassium levels, watch for these symptoms of hypokalemia:7

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

How Much Should You Have?

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.8

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 potassium.

It’s important to note that potassium intake isn’t solely dependent on RDAs linked to health and demographic profile. In fact, 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 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.9 Individuals with conditions that create a deficiency of potassium, like Crohn’s Disease or adrenal gland disorders, may also need to take more potassium.10

The Most 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!11

  • 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

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much?

In short: yes. 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.12

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

If you have too much potassium in your system you may experience nausea; have a weak, irregular, and slowed-down pulse; or even collapse if your heartbeat slows down too much. In some cases, the heart may even stop – so be especially careful not to overdo it.13

But normal dietary intake within recommended levels should not be a problem.14 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, 6, 8. Potassium in diet. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
2, 5. He, Feng J., and Graham A. MacGregor. “Beneficial effects of potassium on human health.” Physiologia Plantarum 133, no. 4 (2008): 725-735.
3. Ascherio, A., E. B. Rimm, M. A. Hernan, E. L. Giovannucci, I. Kawachi, M. J. Stampfer, and W. C. Willett. “Intake of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and fiber and risk of stroke among US men.” Circulation 98, no. 12 (1998): 1198-1204.
4. Weaver, Connie M. “Potassium and health.” Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal 4, no. 3 (2013): 368S-377S.
7, 9. Low potassium level. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
10. Potassium. University of Maryland Medical Center.
11. Potassium lowers blood pressure. Harvard Health Publications.
12, 13, 14. High potassium level. U.S. National Library of Medicine.