Potassium is an important mineral required by the human body for a number of different systems. Potassium is also a type of electrolyte, which helps the body's natural electrical impulses and nerve functions to work properly. Some other ways potassium works in the body include: balancing blood pressure and heart rhythm, maintaining proper muscle functions, keeping the body at a healthy pH, and aiding in proper digestion as well as nutrient absorption.
Like all minerals, potassium is not able to be produced within the body so it must be consumed via diet. Research done by the USDA found that the average American was consuming roughly 2,640mg of potassium per day, which is less than the recommended Adequate Intake guideline of 4,700mg per day (for adults). Since potassium is such an important mineral and one that is necessary for overall health it is highly recommended that more attention be paid to how much potassium is being consumed on a daily basis.
Potassium, just as many other minerals, is essential and offers many health benefits when the diet meets intake recommendations on a daily basis. That being said too much potassium can cause just as many negative health effects as too little.
Symptoms of a Potassium Deficiency
A potassium deficiency is properly referred to as hypokalemia. True hypokalemia is considered to be more of a rare disease, most likely to develop in those with eating disorders, alcoholics, AIDs-sufferers, or people with kidney disorders. Hypokalemia can also occur after prolonged use of medications like laxatives, diuretics or some antibiotics, after a bariatric surgery, or if you experienced severe and prolonged vomiting and/or diarrhea from another illness. Chronic dehydration can also worsen a deficiency.
The most common symptoms of hypokalemia include:
Unusual to extreme lethargy and fatigue
Poor muscle function (weakness, random cramps, and/or spasms)
Heart palpitations and irregular heartbeat
Nausea and/or vomiting
Lack of appetite
Constipation and difficulty in going to the bathroom
Suddenly feeling very thirsty
Mental fog and difficulty focusing
As mentioned, hypokalemia developing completely on its own is rare, but can occur as a symptom of another disease or disorder. A potassium deficiency can also occur when other mineral deficiencies occur. A more common example of this would be a person with a magnesium deficiency beginning to experience hypokalemia symptoms as proper magnesium levels are dependent on how the body will use potassium.
Hyperkalemia is the disease in which the body is too high in potassium. This is far more uncommon compared to hypokalemia yet has many of the same symptoms. Therefore it is vitally important to see a doctor and have bloodwork done if you suspect you are low in potassium. Even if you have the symptoms of hypokalemia you may actually have hyperkalemia, and increasing potassium intake via diet and/or supplements will only exacerbate the issue.
Health Benefits of Potassium
Consistently eating at least 4,700mg of potassium a day is required for maintaining good health, but eating proper amounts of potassium on a daily basis also gives quite a few health benefits.
In fact some nutrition authorities and doctors will prescribe a diet in potassium for certain patients that are at-risk of cardiovascular health disease, kidney disorders, or as a preventative measure if a patient is taking a certain type of medication.
Here are some of the major health benefits of potassium:
Lowers Blood Pressure
When it comes to disease prevention potassium is best known for its ability to lower blood pressure. Research has made it clear that the average American diet is too high in sodium, and thereby too low in potassium. This imbalance of sodium and potassium increases blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is linked to a number of disorders and disease. Not only will increasing potassium help prevent hypertension, but it can also help those already diagnosed with hypertension reduced their systolic blood pressure.
Reduces Risks of Stroke
Since potassium is known to reduce blood pressure it isn't any surprise that two other major benefits include a risk reduction for stroke and various types of heart disease. High potassium intake was found to reduce the risk of stroke by 24%. The research done in this study also helps show that high potassium helps prevent strokes from reoccuring and there also a slight decrease in the risk of cardiovascular or coronary heart disease.
Helps Those Prone to Developing Kidney Stones
Kidney stones are a painful disorder that is most common in adult males, though it can certainly happen in adult women as well. Hypercalciuria (abnormally high calcium levels in urine) are what causes chronic kidney stones to from.
A few different studies have found that either increasing dietary forms of potassium (fruits and vegetables) or taking potassium supplement reduced kidney stone formation. Men that consumed 4,000mg+ of potassium a day were only half as likely to develop kidney stones as men that consumed less than 2,800mg a day.
Works with Medications to Prevent Diabetes
Though still being researched, so far studies show that increasing potassium intake for patients taking thiazide diuretic medications helps prevent the development of diabetes after prolonged use. This is because glucose intolerance is related to poor levels of serum potassium. As explained above, some medications can cause hyperkalemia to occur, so proactively increasing potassium in the diet can prevent serious disease like diabetes from happening.
Dietary Sources of Potassium
If your goal is to increase potassium in your diet then you need to focus on eating more foods high in this mineral rather than relying on supplementation. For the most part using a potassium supplement is only advised when recommended by your doctor under special circumstances. You can find potassium supplements in most stores' vitamin section but the FDA limits over-the-counter potassium supplements to less than 100mg which is fairly insignificant compared to the 4,700mg recommended daily allowance.
You are much better off getting your potassium from diet alone, along with perhaps a very small amount in a multi-vitamin supplement. Here are some of the best high-potassium foods to eat/drink:
Acorn Squash - 1 cup has 896 mg
Avocado - 1 whole fruit has 1,067 mg
Dried Apricots - ½ cup has 756 mg
Coconut Water - 1 cup has 600 mg
Banana - 1 large fruit has 487 mg
Spinach - 1 cup has 839 mg
Cantaloupe - 1 cup has 417 mg
1% Milk - 1 cup has 366 mg
Sweet Potato - 1 large has 855 mg
For the most part, you will get your all your potassium needs if you eat a diet that is rich in whole, fresh produce (vegetables and fruits). Potassium is less common in meats, though some sources like wild salmon deliver about 700 mg in half a fillet.
Take a look at your own diet or consider keeping a food journal for a couple weeks and see how much potassium you're consuming. If you have a diet that largely consists of processed foods you might be surprised to see just how little you're actually getting on a daily basis. It goes without saying that if you're experiencing symptoms that could be a deficiency in potassium you must see your doctor as soon as possible, especially if you've had prior disease, disorders, or are on a medication known to negatively affect potassium levels.
Zoey is a part-time blogger and a full-time nurse. She is the founder and editor of leanrecipes.com an avenue for sharing her passion about juicing, plant-based diet and living a healthier lifestyle.
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