Potassium? You may have heard about it but cannot precisely put your finger on it. Physicians advise on taking 3,500 to 4,700 mg of potassium daily. WHO (the World Health Organization), too, recommends an intake of 3,510 mg per day. Hang on, this does not mean you pop into your mouth a potassium pill every day! Plenty of food is loaded with this mineral compound to help you meet your daily requirements.
Our body to function properly needs diverse nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. They are essential for the growth of our bone, flesh, organs, and to maintain body metabolism. What’s more, we need them to keep the diseases at bay and retain overall good health. Potassium as a macro-mineral fulfills one of those essential nutrients.
Electrolytes are essential minerals found in blood, sweat and urine. Minerals such as sodium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and potassium form the electrolytes much needed by our body.
Imbalance of electrolytes in the body is caused when we lose fluids as a result of persistent vomiting or diarrhea, sweating or fever. Other causes include: Medications such as steroids, diuretics and laxatives.
Surprisingly, nearly 80% of the potassium is found in our body cells in the form of fluids like blood, sweat, and plasma. The rest is stored in our bones and liver.
Biomedical scientists explain that potassium, as an agent, on one hand, regulates the fluid balance in our body and on the other controls the electrical activity of the heart and body muscles. In short, it helps the cellular and electrical functions of our body.
Potassium aids our nerves to function, the muscles to contract, maintain a regular heartbeat, pump nutrients into our body cells and chuck waste products out of them.
As a mineral electrolyte, this wonderful compound cuts down on the high sodium content in our body. It is said to minimize the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and the formation of kidney stones. It supports cardiovascular health, safeguards muscle mass and preserves the mineral density in our bones.
Surprisingly, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, USA) in a survey called NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) revealed a mind-boggling fact that in the United States alone a whopping 98 percent of people fail to meet the daily requirement of 3,500 to 4,700 mg of potassium.
Catherine Collins, a dietician at the St George’s Hospital, Tooting London sheds light on potassium by saying, “We use it to help generate an electrical charge which helps the cell function properly. It helps keep your heart rate steady, it helps trigger insulin release from the pancreas to help control blood sugars, and more importantly, keeps blood pressure in check.”
When the potassium level in our blood is low it’s called hypokalemia. The common symptoms of hypokalemia are fatigue, malaise, muscle aches/cramps, digestive disorder, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, irregular palpitation, numbness of body parts and breathing problem, among others.
Severe potassium deficiency occurs when an adult’s potassium level falls below 3.6 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). In such cases, apart from the symptoms mentioned above, others include low blood pressure, paralysis (as a result of muscle weakness) and respiratory failure. A simple blood test can give you your exact potassium level.
The role of kidneys
While doing the research work for this write-up I met Dr. Rabin Nepali, who kindly shed light on the role of kidneys vis-à-vis potassium. To quote Dr. Rabin: “The dietary intake of potassium ranges from less than 35 to more than 110 mmol/day in U.S. adults.”
“Despite this widespread variation in intake, homeostatic mechanisms serve to maintain plasma potassium precisely between 3.5 and 5.0 mmol/L. In a healthy individual at steady state, the entire daily intake of potassium is excreted, approximately 90% in the urine and 10% in the stool.”
“More than 98% of total body potassium is intracellular, chiefly in muscle. The rapid exchange of intracellular potassium with extracellular potassium plays a crucial role in maintaining plasma potassium within such a narrow range; this is accomplished by overlapping and synergistic regulation of a number of renal and extra-renal transport pathways.”
“So, kidneys play a crucial role in maintaining a steady state in potassium metabolism, by excreting excess potassium or reabsorbing it as required by the body.” (Dr. Rabin Nepali, DM Nephrology, Asst. Professor, Teaching Hospital, Maharajgunj, Kathmandu).
Food and not supplements
Yes, do not get taken in by supplements although you are tempted. There are one too many that you can buy over the counter. Go for dietary sources. There is abundant food brimming with potassium. Not processed food, though as they are high in sodium.
Doctors of medicine argue that natural diets rich in potassium is linked with a lower risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), kidney stones and osteoporosis. Our daily food like meat, poultry, fish, fruits, nuts, and vegetables not only pack various nutrients but also serve as an excellent source of potassium.
Beverages such as milk, coffee and other nonalcoholic drinks too contain a liberal amount of potassium. Let’s take a look at the following chart:
Selected Food Sources of Potassium
Among the foods highest in potassium are said to be beet greens, white beans, soybeans, and Lima beans.
The benefits of potassium include:
Blood pressure and cardiovascular health
Today, hypertension or high blood pressure has become a commonplace health problem among old and young alike. If not addressed on time, it can lead to grave complications like stroke and heart disease.
Sodium or salt, for one, is closely related to high blood pressure and the doctor advises to cut down on the intake of salt. Now, potassium is said to neutralize to a great extent the negative effects of sodium.
Our kidneys aid to keep our blood pressure in control. They put the amount of fluid stored in our body on an even keel. High blood pressure is associated with the increase in fluid in our bodies. Eating a potassium-rich diet negates the effect of sodium and helps the kidneys to restore the balance—as such, lowering the blood pressure to a healthy level.
Clinicians believe a diet high in potassium can help cut systolic blood pressure by more than 10 counts in people with high blood pressure.
Talking about heart health, according to WHO, 17.9 million people worldwide die of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) that includes coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease, and others. Four out of five CVD deaths fall under heart attacks and strokes.
WHO recommends an increase in potassium intake from food (not refined food) to reduce blood pressure and cut down the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Potassium helps reduce vascular calcification, or to simply put it, mineral deposits on the walls of our arteries and veins. These mineral deposits develop into plaques, thus, increasing the risk of stroke and blood clots.
In a study carried out by medical experts, it was found that “those who consumed 4,069 mg of potassium per day had a 49 percent lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease compared with those who consumed about 1,000 mg per day.”
Diabetes has turned into a growing problem. The soaring prevalence of diabetes is also referred to as “the epidemic of the century.” Once considered to be most common with older people, today, affects younger adults too owing to sedentary lifestyle and diet.
According to IDF (International Diabetes Federation), in 2017, the world diabetes figure remained approximately 425 million adults (20-79 years). IDF further stated that by 2045 the figure might rise to a staggering 629 million.
Studies made by health care professionals have come to new findings that lower levels of potassium in the body are also associated with a higher risk of diabetes.
Patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus are at a high risk of ESRD (kidney failure or end-stage renal disease) and CVD (cardiovascular disease), both of which can result in life-threatening complications.
A research made by Dr. Shin-ichi Araki and several of his co-researchers for the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology claimed that diets rich in potassium may help protect the heart and kidney health of patients with type 2 diabetes.
The experiment was participated in by 623 Japanese with type 2 diabetes. The trial ran from 1996 to 2003 with a median follow-up period of 11 years. The results showed that higher levels of potassium in the participants’ urine showed a lower risk of renal dysfunction and cardiovascular problems.
Bone and muscle maintenance
A diet high in potassium is closely related to bone health. Potassium-rich foods generate alkali in the body to maintain acid-base balance. High intake of protein-rich foods or acidifying foods such as meat, dairy products, and processed cereals creates acidosis in our bodies, which have a negative effect on our bones and muscles.
Metabolic acidosis causes excretion of nitrogen resulting in loss of bone mineral density, and muscle wasting. On the other hand, potassium-dense food like vegetables and fruits helps neutralize the adverse effects of acidosis build-up in our body. Older people, too, are benefitted by eating potassium-rich food like fruits and vegetables, which preserve their muscle mass and enhance bone density as well.
The intake of Potassium, as prescribed by a health care professional, is very beneficial to our overall health. Care should be taken, however, not to exceed the recommended dose of 4,700mg per day.
Individuals with no health problems may easily rid their bodies off the excess amounts through their urine with no adverse effects. Food-related potassium toxicity is considered a rarity but excessive consumption can lead to a complication called hyperkalemia. Our body cannot do without potassium. But it does not need it in excess. The kidneys come to the rescue and reject the unwanted potassium from the blood.
In the case of kidney disease, excess potassium can prove dangerous as the kidneys fail to remove the extra potassium, which stays in the blood cells. This can have grave results, even life-threatening ones and the condition is called hyperkalemia.
All health care providers always advise against an extremely high intake of potassium, especially in such patients who have dysfunctional kidney problems and are on supplements. Potassium levels between 5.1 and 6.0 mmol/L are considered high and need immediate consultation. Levels higher than 6.0 mmol/L are dangerous.
Diet and not supplements are the best source of potassium to meet your body’s requirement. “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” Those words were said by the ancient Greek founder of western medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, during the Greek Classical Period in the 5th century BC.
No truer words have ever been said, which sounds right to this day. Eat right, stay healthy!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the above text are solely research-based and the dietary information given does not constitute any medical advice. Cross-reference and reader discretion are solicited. It is further suggested readers seek their health-care provider’s advice or professional help when needed.