Potassium

Potassium is a mineral which stands out amongst other minerals for its countless benefits in sustaining the body operational. It is found in nearly every natural food, especially green leafy vegetable and it is considered a key mineral that is necessary in somewhat considerable quantities.

Surveys estimate that only about 5 percent of the population consumes enough fruits and vegetables to receive sufficient quantity of potassium. The US Institute of Medicine's recommendation for adequate potassium is 4.7 grams per day.[1]  If you’re breastfeeding this amount raises to 5.1 grams per day.  Only 2 percent of the population get the recommended amount.   On average the actual daily intake is only about 2.6 grams.  The cause is obviously a diet that is insufficient in providing enough potassium.  When the levels are out of balance, vital functions are adversely affected. So in a sense it’s quite useful that potassium is quite abundant in so many food sources.

Potassium is an electrolyte, which, as is self-evident from its name, helps conduct electrical charges in the body, together with other electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and chloride. Eating potassium-rich foods is important in maintaining a balance between the chemical and electrical processes in the body.  The main benefits of observing balanced potassium levels include:

 

 

  1. It helps muscles contract, including the heart muscle. Because potassium helps the heart beat regularly, problems with an irregular heartbeat may be stabilised by consuming potassium rich foods.

  2. Higher potassium intake is linked to lower risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

  3. Regulates the fluids in the electrolyte balance in the body.

  4. Improves blood pressure. Effectively, hypertension can often be reduced as a result of regulating potassium levels.

  5. Stabilises low blood sugar. A decrease in potassium can prompt a drop in blood sugar, causing trembling, sweating, weakness and confusion. Potassium intake can provide almost instantaneous relief.

 

On the other hand, low levels of potassium can compromise bone strength and nervous system function, and contributes to conditions such as kidney stones and hypertension. Signs of potassium deficiency include: muscle weakness, constipation, fatigue, abdominal pain, cramps and irritability.

 

As previously mentioned, only 2 percent of the adult population gets the recommended daily amount.  This can cause problems because potassium is a nutrient that needs to be kept in adequate balance with sodium in the blood.  Therefore, if you consume too much sodium, which is something you do when you eat a lot of processed foods, you'll have a greater need for potassium.

Potassium deficiency may be linked to taking diuretic medication, however, anyone who eats a poor diet — an excess of processed foods and not enough fresh, whole foods — is potentially at risk of insufficient potassium levels.

Generally speaking, our body usually does quite a good job when it comes to self-regulating potassium levels. Therefore when levels are low, it’s best to increase them through adequate nutrition. That means consuming potassium rich foods rather than taking synthetic supplements.  In fact, potassium supplements should not be taken by anyone using ACE inhibitors.

 

Low potassium syndrome, or hypokalaemia, is usually either a side effect of antibiotics or diuretics or a symptom of a more serious condition like kidney disease or hyperthyroidism, and treating the underlying condition will often resolve the deficiency.  Other causes for low potassium syndrome include diarrhoea, vomiting and overactive sweat glands. Individuals who fall into high risk group of developing hypokalaemia include people with eating disorders, people who had bariatric surgery, alcoholics, people who take diuretics, HIDS patients and people who use excess laxatives.

 

Potassium in multivitamins and supplements tend not to exceed 100 mg due to the fact that individuals with kidney disease may have severe reactions, and it may also fail to interact well with high blood pressure medications, laxatives and over-the-counter painkillers.

Bananas have always had the reputation of being the queen of potassium, however, but several other foods contain more potassium than bananas (as well as contain less sugar).   For example, avocado contains almost twice as much at 604 mg.

As mentioned earlier, potassium and sodium must be kept in balance.  The problem, however is, that while you expect to benefit from foods containing high amounts of potassium, many manufacturers add too much sodium, completely offsetting any potential health benefit.

 

It's usually recommended that you consume five times more potassium than sodium. If your ratio is out of balance:

  • Avoid all processed foods, which are very high in processed salt and low in potassium and other essential nutrients.

  • Eat a diet of whole, unprocessed foods, ideally organically and locally grown to ensure optimal nutrient content. This will naturally provide greater amounts of potassium in relation to sodium

  • Use a natural salt. Himalayan salt is said to contain lower sodium and higher potassium levels compared to other salts

 

Low potassium levels can cause frequent and painful muscle spasms and leg cramps. While medical doctors often prescribe an anti-spasm or anti-inflammatory medication, eating more potassium-rich foods is likely to be a better solution in the long run.

 

 

[1] http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=10925

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