The Surprising Health Benefits of Potassium: A Scientific Guide

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    Potassium is an important mineral for the healthy functioning of your body. Odds are, you’re not getting enough of it.

    What is potassium?

    Potassium is an important mineral in your body, and it’s widely available in many foods. That’s why, until quite recently, potassium deficiencies in our bodies would have been relatively rare. Two shifts in our behavior have changed that: In general, those of us in Western countries are eating a lot more processed foods, which has potassium removed, and we’re also, in general, eating fewer fruits and vegetables. We evolved to eat much more potassium than we are. So, it’s important to be intentional about getting enough potassium – it’s good for us!

    Potassium is an electrolyte, which means that it helps conduct electrical impulses throughout the body and aids in essential body functions.

    Potassium’s role in the human body

    Potassium is essential to a wide range of biological processes – processes involving blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, cardiovascular health, bone health, the nervous system, and more. About 98% of the potassium in our bodies is found in our cells; of this, about 80% is found in our muscle cells, while the rest is found in bones, liver, and red blood cells. Potassium functions as an electrolyte inside our bodies: In water, an electrolyte dissolves into positive or negative ions that have the capacity for conducting electricity throughout the body. Potassium ions are positively charged. Our bodies use the electricity from potassium ions to manage a number of key functions, such as muscle contractions, nerve signals, and fluid balance.

    Potassium has a symbiotic relationship with sodium; the two work together to regulate your blood pressure. The recommended daily potassium intake from foods is 3400 mg for men and 2600 mg for women 19 years and older.

    Top 9 Health benefits of regular potassium intake

    1. Helps maintain healthy blood pressure

    As mentioned above, potassium has a symbiotic relationship with sodium. Simply put, sodium brings blood pressure up, while potassium brings it down. The key is striking the right balance, enabling you to maintain healthy blood pressure within normal limits.

    A lot of us struggle with maintaining healthy blood pressure. Some reasons may include the fact that processed foods, which remove potassium, are more widely consumed than they once were. Then, of course, there’s the fact that people are eating fewer fruits and vegetables today than they did in the past. We all know how challenging it can be to get the food you need. In the midst of our busy lives, we may reach for the simplest food option, processed or not. But studies show that increasing your potassium intake can lead to healthier, more balanced blood pressure levels. Other studies show that having a potassium-rich diet can help you maintain healthy blood pressure and eating fruits and veggies may be the best way to boost potassium levels. Another study of 1,285 participants aged 25-64 found that people who consumed the most potassium had reduced blood pressure compared to those who consumed the least. If maintaining healthy blood pressure is a goal of yours, adjusting your potassium intake could be a good place to start. In general, the most effective way to increase your potassium intake is through diet. Consult with a medical professional about what’s right for you.

    2. Helps stabilize healthy blood sugar levels

    Potassium is essential for the creation and release of insulin in your body. If you’re not getting the right potassium intake, your body might not be making enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is released from the pancreas. This hormone helps manage several metabolic pathways in the body, but the most important and well-known nutrient is glucose (also known as sugar). Insulin manages where glucose travels to, how it is stored, and how your cells absorb the sugars from your foods after digestion.

    3. May help support cardiovascular health

    Cardiovascular health is vitally important for your quality of life and longevity. Several medically reviewed studies have found that a potassium-rich diet can support heart health. Moreover, an analysis of 33 studies comprising 128,644 participants found the same thing: people who consumed more potassium had stronger cardiovascular health than those who ate less potassium.

    4. Maintain a healthy nervous system

    The function of your nervous system is to relay messages between your brain and your body. It takes in information through our senses, and then it processes the information, triggering a reaction. An example of this process would be when you touch a hot plate: You instinctually pull back, and your nerves send signals to your brain, as if to say, *This is painful. Do not touch this. *

    The messages passed along by our nervous system help regulate heartbeat, reflexes, muscle contractions, and other important body functions. These messages are nerve impulses that help regulate muscle contractions, heartbeat, reflexes, and several other body functions. These nerve impulses are generated by the relationship between sodium and potassium ions: sodium ions moving into cells, and potassium ions moving out. That’s why a drop in your potassium level can negatively impact your body’s ability to create a nerve impulse. Pay attention to your potassium intake and consult with a medical professional, because getting enough potassium in your diet can be the key to maintaining a healthy nervous system.

    5. Helps regulate muscle and heart contractions

    Your muscle and heart contractions are a function of your nervous system. Getting enough potassium is vitally important to the healthy functioning of your nervous system and, by extension, the regulation of muscle and heart contractions. Potassium levels that are too high or too low – that is, not properly balanced with the sodium in your body – can alter the voltage of your nerve cells, which affects the contractions of your muscles and heart. If the potassium levels in your blood are too high or too low, that can have an impact on your heartbeat. A heart that isn’t beating properly will affect the functioning of the rest of the body, causing problems in blood circulation.

    6. May support bone health

    When you think about bone health, you might automatically think of calcium. That makes sense, because calcium is an essential nutrient and 99% of the body’s calcium resides in our bones. It turns out, though, that you should also think of potassium: Studies from the National Institute of Health have shown that potassium-rich diets can support bone health by reducing the amount of calcium we lose through urine.

    7. Maintain healthy fluid balance

    When it comes to fluid balance, it takes a lot more than just drinking enough fluids. To ensure proper hydration, the body relies on the presence of electrolytes. Without the right electrolytes, fluids cannot enter cells or blood plasma to transport nutrients. Of course, hydration is important, but your body’s fluid balance depends on the right nutrient balance. This is where potassium comes into play.

    Potassium supports healthy fluid balance inside and outside the cells, as well as in the blood plasma. It works together with other electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium, and sodium to maintain proper fluid levels in the body. Potassium is regulated in the body by the kidneys, which can excrete excess, but the body requires a minimum daily amount to support healthy function.

    8. Supports individuals engaging in physical activity

    It’s no surprise that physical activity and exercise increase sweating and fluid loss. During these times, potassium emerges as an important regulator of fluid balance inside the body. While maintaining proper hydration is essential for physical activity, it is just as important to ensure an adequate intake of electrolytes to support the healthy distribution of fluids throughout the body, including inside and outside the cells, as well as in the blood plasma. This is why sports drinks contain a well-balanced blend of not only water, but electrolytes and sugar. Simply drinking plain water during vigorous activity will not lead to proper hydration. Supporting healthy potassium balance through both dietary sources and supplements will give your cells the necessary nutrients it needs during and after physical exertion.

    But that’s not all! Adequate access to potassium supports healthy muscular and energy responses within the body. When the diet is rich in potassium, muscle cells have the capacity to store additional potassium. This becomes beneficial during times of high demand for potassium, such as after intense exercise. The muscles act as a rapid source of potassium release to meet the body's increased requirements.

    9. Promotes a healthy digestive system

    One of the lesser-known, but highly fascinating benefits of potassium is its ability to promote a healthy digestive system. It does this by helping to stimulate the secretion of hydrochloric acid, which is necessary for digestion and nutrient breakdown. Hydrochloric acid is particularly important for the proper breakdown of proteins and other harder-to-digest micronutrients like minerals. When there is an insufficient amount of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, these nutrients may not be fully broken down, potentially compromising their absorption in the small intestine, and later leading to deficiencies.

    Additionally, maintaining a proper fluid balance is essential for healthy digestion, absorption, and transport of nutrients throughout the body. Adequate levels of potassium ions are required to transport digested nutrients through the bloodstream and to support healthy excretion and elimination processes carried out by the kidneys and large intestine.

    Different forms of potassium

    Potassium is available in various forms to cater to different needs and preferences. Some of the most common forms of potassium include:

    • Potassium chloride
    • Potassium citrate
    • Potassium phosphate
    • Potassium aspartate
    • Potassium bicarbonate
    • Potassium gluconate

    Potassium-rich foods

    Potassium can be found in a wide variety of food sources. Fruits and vegetables like bananas, potatoes, avocados, and apricots are excellent sources of potassium. Additionally, soybeans are a plant-based source of potassium that can be incorporated into a variety of dishes. Whole grain wheat flour and brown rice are also nutritious grains that pack a punch when it comes to potassium. Furthermore, several beverages such as milk, coffee, tea, and fruit juices can contribute to potassium consumption.

    Consuming potassium through food is the optimal way to boost your intake, as it has been found that the body absorbs approximately 85-90% of potassium from food sources.

    Potassium supplements

    Supplemental potassium tends to be absorbed similarly by the body, regardless of the form. Potassium can be found in standalone supplements, but it’s also common to find potassium paired with other electrolyte nutrients.

    However, dietary supplements generally do not contain much potassium. Most dietary supplements provide a modest amount, typically ranging from 99-120 mg per serving. This is likely due to the fact that potassium is widely available in a number of food sources.

    How much potassium should the average person consume daily?

    The recommended daily adequate intake for individuals born male is approximately 3,400 mg, while those born female should aim for around 2,600 mg. Potassium should primarily come from food sources.

    Risks of excessive potassium intake

    Excessive intake of potassium, particularly through dietary supplements, can pose risks and potentially lead to health problems. Excessive potassium can result in heart or muscle problems.

    People who have health conditions should not take potassium supplements since there can be issues with specific organ responses, as well as interactions with medications. It is always advisable to consult with your medical provider before initiating any dietary supplements, especially if you are taking medications. Individuals with kidney, liver, heart, or metabolic conditions should avoid potassium supplements unless explicitly directed to take them by a healthcare provider.

    Potential side effects and considerations

    Here’s the good news: It is quite rare for someone to experience a potassium deficiency – this despite the fact that fewer than 2% of Americans meet the recommended intake. Likewise, it’s not very common for someone to get too much potassium. When it does occur, it’s typically the result of taking too many potassium supplements, not from consuming too much potassium in foods.

    Potassium deficiencies occur when you rapidly lose too much potassium, which can happen as a result of vomiting, diarrhea, or suddenly losing too much water.

    Excess blood potassium can happen when your body can’t remove enough potassium through urine. This is a particular problem for people who have kidney issues. It’s therefore important for certain populations to limit their potassium intake based on their body’s ability to remove it. Furthermore, there’s some evidence that taking too much potassium in supplement form can overcome the kidneys’ capacity for removing excess potassium. As always, you should discuss your particular situation with a medical professional.

    Interactions between potassium and certain medications.

    Potassium supplements have the potential to interact with certain medications. People taking blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, and potassium-sparing diuretics should avoid potassium supplementation. Additionally, loop diuretics and thiazide diuretics can also interact with potassium supplements. Always talk to your doctor about any new supplements before adding them to your regimen.

    How other nutrients affect potassium absorption and utilization

    The absorption and utilization of potassium in the body can be influenced by the presence of other nutrients. For example, potassium decreases the excretion of calcium, while sodium, on the other hand, increases calcium excretion. Magnesium deficiency can also lead to increased potassium excretion. Each of these minerals has important roles as electrolytes, but their functions are best served when consumed in balanced amounts.

    A diet that is high in sodium and salt while being low in potassium is the most common cause of potassium imbalance. The best way to prevent this is by reducing sodium intake and eating more fruits and vegetables. By doing so, you can support healthy cellular fluid levels, heart health, and muscular contractions.

    The Bottom Line

    Potassium is an essential mineral that helps maintain healthy fluid balance in and out of the cells. It also supports healthy digestive function, muscular contractions, and much more. Potassium can be found in a wide variety of food sources, but unfortunately, many Americans consume too much salt and not enough potassium. Dietary supplements, like electrolyte blends, can provide some potassium, but it is important to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to consume enough potassium for a healthy balance.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.