Diet and Nutrition

Understanding the Health Benefits of Potassium

Understanding the Health Benefits of Potassium

Key Takeaways

  • Our body does not naturally produce potassium.
  • Potassium supplements should be adequately consumed to gain positive benefits.
  • Taking too little or too much potassium can be harmful to your health. 
  • We all know that potassium is one of the essential nutrients our body needs to perform different functions. Along with other key macrominerals including magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, sulfur, and chloride, our body needs potassium to maintain a healthy metabolism.

Our body does not naturally produce potassium. Hence, we need to consume sufficient amounts of it through our diet to avoid potassium deficiency symptoms. In general, we require a minimum of 100 mg of potassium every day to help the body perform key processes. Thus, we must eat foods that are rich in potassium daily to maintain a healthy well-being.

What is potassium?

Potassium is a chemical element with atomic number 19. It is a reactive metal of the alkali-metal group that has a soft silvery-white appearance. In scientific laboratories, potassium can be found in several compound forms such as:

  • Potassium citrate
  • Potassium bromide
  • Potassium gluconate
  • Potassium acetate
  • Diclofenac potassium
  • Potassium sulfide
  • Potassium bicarbonate
  • Potassium dichromate
  • Potassium cyanide
  • Potassium oxide
  • Potassium perchlorate
  • Amoxicillin-clavulanate potassium
  • Potassium chromate

These salts are used to carry out laboratory tests. Potassium is also an essential mineral found in the foods you eat. It is also sometimes referred to as an electrolyte because it helps conduct electrical impulses throughout the body. Consuming a low potassium diet can cause some serious health issues. However, a very high potassium level can also lead to temporary or long-term health consequences. Our kidneys maintain normal potassium levels in the body by eliminating the excess amounts through urine.

Potassium plays a very crucial role in a number of basic bodily processes, but its primary function is to regulate fluid and mineral balance as well as control the electrical activity of the heart and other muscles. It acts as an electrolyte in the body and keeps our brain, heart, kidney, muscle tissues, and other important organs of our body in a healthy condition. It also helps maintain a normal blood pressure by dulling the effects of sodium. As we age, potassium may also reduce the risk of bone loss and recurrent kidney stones. There are several natural and supplemental sources of potassium. So if you want to include high potassium levels in your daily diet routine, you can consider both ways.

Here are some essential body functions that potassium assists in:

  • Blood pressure
  • pH balance (acidity and alkalinity)
  • Normal water balance
  • Nerve impulses
  • Muscle contractions
  • Heart rhythm
  • Digestion

What is the normal potassium level?

According to Mayo Clinic, your potassium level should normally lie between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) of blood. A very low potassium level of less than 2.5 mmol/L (hypokalemia) and a very high potassium level of more than 5.5 mmol/L (hyperkalemia) can be life-threatening and require prompt medical attention.

What are the health benefits of potassium in food?

1) Reduces the Risk of Stroke

Many studies have found that high potassium levels reduce the risk of stroke. It keeps brain function at an optimum level by allowing more oxygen to reach the brain. Potassium is known for stimulating neural activity and promoting cognitive function. This is the reason why bananas are called as "brain food" because they are rich in potassium. When a proper amount of potassium is consumed, it acts as a vasodilator that relaxes the blood vessels throughout the body. This encourages the proper flow of blood, which means that there are fewer chances of the formation and break off of clots that cause strokes.

2) Helps Regulate Blood Sugar Levels

Low levels of potassium in the body cause a drop in blood sugar, leading to several health problems such as headaches, sweating, weakness, nervousness, and trembling. The consumption of potassium chloride along with the sodium provides instant relief from such conditions. It stabilizes the blood sugar levels and reduces the possibility of sudden spikes and plunges in their insulin and glucose levels. It is the reason why people who have diabetes are often told to keep their potassium levels at a normal level.

3) Keeps Blood Pressure Under Control

Potassium-sparing diuretics are drugs that are often used in managing hypertension. It prevents the sodium in the blood from being reabsorbed into the bloodstream, which in turn helps to normalize the blood pressure. It further reduces the risk of heart diseases. Since potassium has vasodilating properties, it relieves the tension of blood vessels, which is one of the major causes of high blood pressure.

4) Prevents Muscle Disorders

Potassium plays a very crucial role in regular muscle contraction. A right amount of potassium in the body promotes regular contraction and relaxation of muscles. Since most of the potassium is present in the muscle cells of the body, it maintains optimal muscle and nerve functions. It also helps keep our reflexes fast because it encourages the neural connectivity of brain and the muscles.

5) Promotes Healthy Bones

Studies have shown that potassium-rich foods help keep the bones healthy, especially among elderly women. Thus, it is safe to assume that consuming foods that are rich in potassium may play a role in preventing osteoporosis. Eating foods with a high potassium level also results in higher mineral density in bones, which further strengthens and prolongs the life of your bones.

6) Helps in Brain Function

Potassium plays a very important role in maintaining the electrical conductivity of the brain. It is also known for improving higher brain functions such as learning and memory. A low potassium diet can lead to brain ailments such as epilepsy. On the other hand, foods that are high in potassium can prevent stroke and other brain diseases.

7) Maintains pH Levels

Potassium hydroxide is often used in cosmetics and skin care products because it acts as a pH level balancer for the skin. It keeps the skin hydrated by absorbing the water molecules from the environment. Hence, instead of using cosmetics that contain other chemical compounds, you can opt for eating potassium-rich foods to keep your skin naturally hydrated.

8) Maintains Water Balance

Potassium also plays a very significant role in maintaining the optimal fluid balance in the body. Our different body cells need a proper balance of water to efficiently function. The proper intake of potassium helps these cells maintain the water balance. This is the reason why many people recommend eating bananas after athletic activities or if you are suffering from diarrhea. Potassium-rich bananas rehydrate and optimize fluid balance in the body.

9) Supports Kidney Function and Prevent Kidney Disorders

Potassium supports the normal functioning of the kidneys. It keeps the kidneys clean and helps remove waste from the body through the excretion process. By eating foods that are rich in potassium, you can also avoid having kidney stones or prevent them from becoming severe if you are already suffering from it. However, you must consult with your doctor about the right potassium dosage, as too much potassium can stimulate the body to absorb excessive calcium, which can contradictorily cause kidney problems instead of solving them.

10) Prevents Stress and Anxiety

Potassium can be greatly beneficial for people who are battling mental conditions such as stress and anxiety. It is often touted as a powerful stress buster, thereby ensuring optimum mental health. Potassium gives you relief from chronic stress as it helps regulate various hormones in your body, including stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. The excessive production of these hormones can negatively affect other body systems, too.

11) Reduces Cellulite Appearance

Fluid retention is one of the major causes of cellulite buildup. Many people consume excessive sodium but not sufficient potassium. As a result, they manage to bring nutrients into their cells but cannot flush excessive waste out of the cells. Hence, reducing one's sodium intake and eating foods that are rich in potassium can help you reduce the appearance of cellulite.

What foods are high in potassium?

1) Bananas

Bananas are the richest source of potassium. One banana contains about 400 mg of potassium. It is an energy snack, which is very beneficial for athletes. Apart from potassium, bananas are also a good source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, and fiber.

2) Dried Fruits

Dried fruits such as figs, peaches, and apricots are high in potassium. Moreover, these healthy snacks can also satisfy sugar cravings. Dried apricots are especially very beneficial for your health. Just one cup of apricots in concentrated or dehydrated form contains about 1,500 mg of potassium. You can also try dried raisins, peaches, or dried figs if you don’t like apricots.

3) Kidney Beans

Kidney beans are a rich source of potassium. Just one cup of kidney beans contains more than 600 mg of potassium. They’re also a good source of fiber. Lima beans, white beans, soybeans (edamame), and pinto beans are also other types of beans that have high potassium content.

4) Potatoes

All kinds of potatoes, whether they’re white, red, or sweet, are a good source of potassium. One medium Russet potato contains about 900 mg of potassium, which is fairly high. Potatoes are also rich in vitamin B6, vitamin C, fiber (especially the skin), and iron.

5) Avocado

Avocado is a superfood that contains many essential nutrients including potassium. One avocado contains about 975 mg of potassium and other important vitamins for maintaining a healthy well-being. You can include avocado in your diet in the form of a smoothie or add them to your salad breakfast. Avocado is a versatile ingredient that can be used in many ways.

6) Fish

Fish such as tuna, wild salmon, flounder, halibut, and Pacific cod are rich sources of potassium. A 3-ounce of wild Atlantic salmon makes about 500 mg of potassium. These fish are also high in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

7) Milk

One cup of whole milk contains more than 300 mg of potassium, while 1 cup of nonfat milk makes about 400 mg. A cup of yogurt contains around 350-500 mg of potassium depending on the variety. This gives you enough good reason to add dairy products to your daily diet.

8) Dark Leafy Veggies

Dark leafy vegetables such as spinach are some of the best sources of potassium. In fact, 1 cup of spinach when cooked, contains more than 800 mg of potassium. One cup of bok choy makes about 600 mg when boiled, and 1 cup of Swiss chard contains about 1,000 mg of potassium when cooked. Leafy greens are also low in calories and high in many essential vitamins and minerals. Hence, you must include them in your regular diet to get the needed potassium in your body.

What are the symptoms of low potassium?

Low potassium levels in the body, a condition known as hypokalemia, can cause serious health issues. Hypokalemia occurs when the potassium level drops below 3.5 mmol/L. Many factors can contribute to low potassium levels. Some chronic conditions such as vomiting, diarrhea, and eating disorders like bulimia can also contribute to it. Alcoholism or the excessive use of laxatives can also cause hypokalemia. Low potassium symptoms are usually mild, but they can sometimes be vague.

The symptoms of low potassium include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Cramping in your arm or leg muscles
  • Inability to move your arms or legs due to weakness
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Abdominal cramping and bloating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Heart palpitations
  • Passing large amounts of urine
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fainting due to low blood pressure
  • Psychological problems such as psychosis, depression, confusion, hallucinations, or delirium

These symptoms are usually treated by taking potassium supplements. Although consuming potassium in its natural form through foods is the best way, but when its level is too low in the body, supplements are usually the first course of action.

How much potassium supplements should you take?

Potassium supplements should be adequately consumed to gain positive benefits. Taking too little or too much potassium can be harmful to your health. Thus, make sure that whatever dose of potassium you are taking, it should be sufficient enough to keep you healthy. Before taking any kind of supplement, always consult with your doctor to know your optimal dose. If you still experience any negative effects, call your doctor immediately.