Unlike proteins or carbs, the human body needs only minute quantities of most minerals and vitamins. But there are some minerals that are needed in higher quantities and potassium is one such important macromineral.
But the importance of potassium is often underestimated in our diets. The FDA permits only 100 mg of non-prescription potassium supplements, which is just 2% of the recommended 4,700 milligrams a day. You have to get the rest of this vital mineral from your diet.
The primary functions of potassium in the body include regulating fluid balance and controlling the electrical activity of the heart and other muscles.
Optimal potassium intake lowers blood pressure, preserves bone mineral density, prevents loss of muscle mass, reduces the risk of stroke, and most importantly, it decreases the risk of overall mortality by 20%!
How Does Potassium Work?
Potassium is a very important mineral in the body and is extremely important for cellular and electrical functions.
The body does not make potassium, and therefore it is dependent upon outside nutrients for this compound. However, potassium gets stored in plasma, blood, and bones. 98 percent of potassium is found inside cells.
Regulation of fluids and muscle contractions along with nerve signal transmission are among the important tasks that this mineral performs. The kidneys help in maintaining the potassium balance in the body.
Potassium is found inside the cell as a positive electrolyte and stays in harmony with sodium, that’s the negative electrolyte situated outside the cell. Together, they maintain an equilibrium that enables all body functions. They maintain the fluid balance in the body and normal functioning of all the muscles and nerves.
7 Proven Health Benefits of Potassium
The health provisions of potassium are many and varied. From managing the rhythmic heartbeat to contributing to bone mass density, this mineral has a key role in the daily activities of the body. It maintains the fluid balance of the body and helps the organs work. It supports renal functions and is also crucial in preventing brain stroke.
Effects of Potassium on High Blood Pressure
Kidneys are the organs in your body that help control your blood pressure. It does so, by regulating the fluid that is stored inside the body. The process uses a delicate balance of sodium and potassium. Excess salt intake through diet or high consumption of processed food results in a high amount of sodium in your bloodstream that totally disbalances this equilibrium (1).
Potassium negates this effect of sodium and helps restore balance, thereby maintaining the blood pressure to a healthy level. There are two types of blood pressure, Systolic blood pressure, and diastolic blood pressure. The former refers to the pressure inside the arteries when the heart is pumping while later refers to the pressure inside your arteries when the heart is at rest between beats.
In 2017, several intervention studies were investigated by four authors in Modena, Italy. They investigated the effect of potassium supplementation on blood pressure in hypertensive people. They concluded that indeed potassium intake decreased both systolic as well as diastolic blood pressure. They also stated that an adequate dietary intake of potassium, 90mmol/day, should be the goal for the right balance (2).
22 Randomized control trials and 11 cohort studies done in 2013 in Switzerland by six scientists concluded that increased potassium intake reduces the blood pressure in hypertensive people. It was associated with a 24 percent lower risk of stroke, whose one of the biomarkers is high blood pressure (3).
Summary: Potassium regulates the fluid balance in the body thereby averting its excessive accumulation. This results in less pressure on the arteries which prevents high blood pressure.
Potassium Intake and Lower Cardiovascular Diseases (CVD)
The narrowing of the blocked blood vessels of the heart causes heart attack, chest pain (angina), or stroke. These medical conditions of the heart are known as cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Potassium works in several ways to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Firstly, it lowers blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure reduces the risk of heart diseases (4).
One other marker of CVD is blood cholesterol level. Since potassium reduces the bad cholesterol, ‘LDL cholesterol’, it benefits the heart by keeping the valves clean and working.
Potassium also plays an important role in the contraction of heart muscles and sufficient potassium in the blood enables the heart to beat in a healthy way. It triggers them to help squeeze blood through your body.
In 2011, four scientists in Naples, Italy checked the benefits of potassium intake on stroke and cardiovascular diseases. It was found that higher dietary potassium intake is associated with lower rates of stroke and also may reduce the risk of CVD (5).
A systematic review was done in 2013, to see the effect of increased potassium intake on CVD. It showed that higher potassium intake was associated with a 24 percent lower risk of stroke (6).
Summary: Potassium lowers the chances of CVD by reducing the biomarkers that are responsible. It lowers blood pressure, ensures a healthy heartbeat, and reduces bad cholesterol.
Potassium May Treat Arrhythmia
Around 3 million people die from cardiac death annually. These deaths often emerge from a trigger. Unbalanced potassium homeostasis among the cells of the heart is one such trigger. It has been seen that hypokalemia ( low blood potassium level) is present amongst 7-17 percent of CVD patients (7).
Arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat, that has been linked to serious heart condition is one of the effects of hypokalemia (8).
Arrhythmia is a condition where the rhythm of the heartbeat is slow. It is caused by changes in the electrical signals that bring about the heartbeat. The effects of less than optimal amounts of potassium on the heart have been a subject of study and trials for many decades (9).
The relation between hypokalemia and clinical arrhythmias has been realized since the 1940s. The 1950s and 60s saw some studies scientists (like Surawicz and Lepeschkin) who successfully treated arrhythmias with the administration of potassium.
These studies have shown that there is a direct association of heart conditions with very low levels of potassium. Supplement potassium has been shown to lower the chances of arrhythmia.
Summary: Inadequate potassium causes hypokalemia and can be one of the triggers to a fatal arrhythmia. Sufficient potassium intake brings back the balance and may cure this problem.
Potassium and Brain Activity
Potassium plays a very crucial role in maintaining normal brain activities. High levels of potassium ensure more oxygen to the brain, stimulating both neural activities as well as increased cognitive function. This also prevents the occurrence of stroke.
The normal human brain consumes around 20 percent of the total oxygen taken while at rest. High levels of potassium allow more oxygen to reach the brain, thereby stimulating neural activity and increasing cognitive function. This is important in preventing cerebral attacks too (10).
Potassium is a vasodilator (relaxes the blood vessels) and promotes free blood flow that reduces the occurrence of a clot to cause a stroke.
Summary: By acting as a vasodilator and facilitating adequate oxygen supply to the brain, potassium helps in the functioning of the neural activities in a healthy way.
Potassium and Bone Health
The role of potassium in protecting bones is to arrest the action of bone-depleting metabolic acids. It conserves the calcium within the body and reduces urinary calcium loss (11).
Potassium in urine is an essential marker of the presence of potassium in bones.
A variety of population-based studies have documented the positive association of high potassium intake and bone health. Several studies with adults have found a positive relationship between high fruit and vegetable intake and better bone mineral density (12).
In 2015, a meta-analysis with a total of 14 studies was conducted to see the effect of potassium supplementation on bone metabolism. It confirmed that supplementation with alkaline potassium salt resulted in a significant reduction in renal calcium excretion. Thus potassium is proved to conserve calcium, resulting in improved bone health (13).
Summary: By neutralizing the harmful acids that are created within the body, potassium helps inhibit bone resorption, thereby maintaining good bone health.
Reduced Risk of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones become very weak and brittle. In the body, the bone constantly absorbs and replaces bone tissue. In osteoporosis, the new bone creation is slower than the old bone removal resulting in the hollow and porous bone (14).
It is mostly linked to low calcium levels in the body. But now, studies have shown that potassium has a very important role to play in this. It reduces calcium excretion thereby preventing osteoporosis.
In 1997, a cross-sectional study was done in the Osteoporosis Research Unit, at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Four scientists worked on 994 healthy premenopausal women aged 45-49 years. They stated that long term high intake of potassium along with certain other minerals improved their bone health and helped prevent osteoporosis (15).
Summary: Potassium intake reduces the chances of osteoporosis by lowering the eating of calcium from the bones. This results in strong, healthy bones.
Potassium Regulates Fluid Balance
60% of the body is made up of water, of which 40% is present inside the cells and is known as intracellular fluid (ICF). The extracellular fluid (ECF) is outside the cells in the blood and spinal fluid and between cells. The balance of water inside and outside the cells is affected by the concentrations of electrolytes such as potassium and sodium (16).
Potassium controls the water quantity inside the cells and sodium manages water outside the cells. The number of electrolytes relative to the amount of fluid is known as osmolality. A balance of electrolytes is present inside and outside the cells (17).
When there is an imbalance the water of the electrolyte from the cells that have fewer electrolytes will move outside to equalize electrolytes. This can result in shrinking or bursting of cells depending on the depletion or increase of electrolytes (18).
A good fluid balance is necessary for optimal health. Irregular balance of fluids can lead to dehydration. By consuming a high potassium diet and staying hydrated, good fluid balance can be maintained.
Summary: The potassium along with sodium regulates the fluid balance in the body and maintains optimal health.
The Importance of a Balanced, Potassium-Rich Diet
It is essential that you consume a balanced and varied diet. Follow the recommendation of your doctor. Enquire about the foods that would provide the vital nutrients for your health; the total amount of potassium covers your diet and the supplement you may be consuming. The total intake of this compound should not exceed the optimum level unless advised by your doctor.
Potassium-rich foods include beans, nuts, whole grains, leafy vegetables, carrots, and potatoes. Fruits like bananas, pineapples, apricots, kiwis, and oranges have an abundance of potassium in them. The potassium need of the body is accomplished by eating a balanced diet.
A nutritionist can help plan a supplementary diet for those who are deficient in this mineral. Intravenous treatment is required for those who have extremely low amounts of potassium. Consuming too little or too much potassium can cause serious health problems.
Potassium Deficiencies: Symptoms and Diseases
In the body, potassium works as an electrolyte. Positive and negative ions are produced with potassium carrying a positive charge. A change in the number of electrolytes in the body can cause mild to severe medical conditions if not treated on time.
Extreme low levels of potassium in the body lead to a condition called hypokalemia. Excess excretion of potassium without adequate intake of this compound is the main cause of the disease.
Many times it is the result of other medications and health conditions. A blood test and urine test will reveal this condition. Mineral and vitamin levels can be examined through these tests.
Signs of low potassium may not appear until it is very low in the body. Some of the symptoms experienced are heart palpitations, fatigue, constipation, weakness, and muscle cramping (19), (20).
Below 3.6 is low and if it is below 2.5 mmol/L it is dangerously low. The symptoms are respiratory failure, paralysis, muscle tissue breakdown, and lazy bowels. Severe cases exhibit abnormal rhythms, fast heartbeats.
The Dosage and Side Effects of Potassium Supplements
What is the Optimum Level of Potassium Intake? The National Institute of Medicine has recommended the amounts of potassium intake according to age and gender. As a precaution, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows only about 100 milligrams of non-prescription potassium supplements (including multivitamin/mineral pills) which is only 2 percent of the recommended 4,700 milligrams a day (21).
Extended-release potassium supplement tablets (600 or 750 milligrams) are available only by prescription. They are for the treatment of people who take medication that causes excretion of potassium from the body, such as certain diuretics.
Potassium overdose leads to hyperkalemia. This medical condition is very rare among people who consume a balanced diet. It can be caused by excessive exercise, kidney issues, too much potassium supplements, use of cocaine, chemotherapy, diabetes, and severe burns.
One of the most apparent symptoms is abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia) As it does not show as many symptoms your doctor should advise regular blood checks if risks are present.
Frequently Asked Questions About Potassium
Will Potassium Keep my Heart Healthy?
Adequate amounts of this compound do not prevent heart conditions. Low cholesterol diets are always high in potassium. So a good natural diet will support a balanced cholesterol level. High blood pressure is controlled by potassium. Heartbeat and potassium levels are closely associated.
What Tests Will the Doctor Recommend for Hyperkalemia and Hypokalemia?
A potassium blood test can detect the amount of potassium in the body. An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) test can also be recommended to check on the heartbeat rhythms.
As kidneys play a major role in the balance of potassium in the body; a kidney function test is necessary. The diabetic condition also influences potassium levels in the body. Diabetic tests also will be helpful. Early consultation and discussion of symptoms will make way for early tests and treatment.
Is Potassium Imbalance Fatal?
No potassium imbalance is not fatal. Diagnosis and treatments are available. However, if the symptoms are not treated early, the imbalances can lead to serious health consequences and eventually cause fatalities. The increase above the optimum level called hyperkalemia is a more serious condition.
Who is at Risk for Potassium Disorders?
People who do not eat a balanced diet or consume potassium supplements without a doctor’s recommendation; people who have a medical condition like renal disorders or diabetes that is left untreated for a long time are prone to potassium induced health disorders. Other medications can cause an increase or decrease in potassium levels. People with existing cardiac problems are also vulnerable to potassium imbalances.
Use of diuretics, abuse of alcohol or drugs, having a physically demanding job can cause deficiencies in potassium. Eating disorder, Crohn’s disease can lead to a depletion of potassium storage. Even athletes undertaking strenuous exercises with excessive sweating are susceptible to this mineral decrease.
Can Potassium Levels Become Low With Drinking too Much Water?
Taking a lot of water even when you are not thirsty will result in overhydration. An electrolyte imbalance may occur temporarily and can cause other medical conditions. Potassium, sodium, and magnesium are needed for the proper functioning of the organs of the body.
Does Hypokalemia Require Hospitalization?
If anyone shows symptoms of hypokalemia he or she has to be admitted to a hospital for treatment and heart monitoring (to ensure the heart rhythm is normal).
Can I take Potassium on an Empty Stomach?
Potassium chloride should not be taken on an empty stomach. It is available as a tablet, granules, liquid, and a powder form. A majority of potassium supplements have instructions on the label suggesting to consume the potassium supplement with a meal.
Can Potassium Levels Be Checked At Home?
Yes, now it is possible to check the potassium level by yourself. A fast, accurate, and low-cost test for blood potassium levels, that can be used at home, is being developed by Kalium Diagnostics. It is the world’s first ‘HOME-USE’ blood potassium test kit.
Which Foods are Poor Sources of Potassium?
When a serving of food has less than 200 mg of potassium, it is considered a poor source of potassium. This includes berries like strawberries and blueberries, cranberry, other fruits such as apples, pineapples, and grapefruits.
Vegetables with low potassium content include cauliflower, broccoli, eggplants, and green beans. White rice, white bread, and pasta are also poor sources of potassium.
Do Medications Affect Potassium Levels in the Body?
Yes, there are medications that interfere with potassium absorption or its functions in the body. Diuretics such as furosemide and bumetanide, antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal and Seroquel, insulin medications, albuterol in asthma inhalers, laxatives and enemas, as well as, decongestants can interfere with your potassium levels.
It’s best to consult a physician before taking any potassium supplements as you need to be sure it’s not interfering with your medications or vice versa. If you are on any of the above-mentioned medications, make sure to check that your potassium levels to avoid such deficiencies.
The Final Note
Potassium is required for maintaining good health. A well-balanced diet will deliver all the potassium the body needs. However, the use of other medications or the lack of adequate potassium in the diet may cause a decline in this mineral. In these situations, doctors may prescribe a potassium supplement.
Some oral potassium supplements are available without prescriptions. The quantity in each serving will be minimal. The health benefits of this mostly unpopular mineral underestimate its central role in the functioning of the organs of the body.
Consequently, it is not among the health priorities of the average population. Dietary foods like kale, beet greens, and spinach, should find a prominent place in our eating habits.