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Everything you need to know about Potassium

We are all aware that we need a certain level of minerals in our diets. This is just one of those things that get through to us at an early age. But few of us pay attention to how much we get of these minerals on any given day. Potassium is one of these essential minerals. 

Most of us know that we need potassium and we get potassium from things like bananas. But not many of us are fully aware of how important this mineral is to our health. There are so many foods that contain potassium it is not difficult at all to get all the potassium you need from your diet. We need not make ourselves sick from too many bananas. 

The fact is that potassium is necessary for our very survival. Potassium is essential for numerous vital functions that range from fluid balance to the proper functioning of the heart. While we have the sense that eating a few bananas in a week gives us the potassium we need, the importance of potassium goes well beyond this. 

What is the function of potassium in our bodies? What are the benefits of potassium? What happens if we do not get enough potassium? And are there potential issues we should know about from getting too much potassium? This guide will give you all the information you need to maintain a healthy balance of potassium in your diet. 

What is Potassium?

Potassium is a chemical element with atomic number 19. Because of its particular chemical nature, potassium always exists in nature in the form of some kind of salt. For example, a potassium chloride is a common form. Potassium exists as an ion. This means it will always bind with another element. 

Potassium was first isolated from potash or the ashes from plant material. It is now known that potassium is essential to sustain life. The many forms that potassium can take in our bodies allows potassium to facilitate multiple processes, and for this reason, we must get a specific amount of potassium in our diets. 

Potassium forms salt solutions in the body, and these are what we call electrolytes. Electrolytes operate as fuel for basic chemical reactions that make up what we call metabolism. In essence, electrolytes conduct electrical impulses within physiological processes that allow these processes to occur. Without potassium electrolytes, the most elemental functions within the body cannot happen at all. 

It is estimated that less than 2 percent of people consume enough potassium in their diets. While it is possible to consume enough potassium through diet alone, the fact that so many people do not get enough potassium in their diet has led to the development of potassium supplements. Supplementing potassium and other vital minerals is one of the most efficient ways to ensure that you get the proper amount of potassium for good health. 

Potassium benefits

We know potassium is an essential mineral. But the benefits of potassium are more than just general nutrition. Here are some of the main benefits of potassium. 

Regulates fluid balance

Our bodies are made up of about 60 percent water. About 40 percent of this water is inside cells. It is called intracellular fluid. The rest is in things like blood, spinal fluid, and between the cells. The amount of fluid that stays in a balance between cells and the rest of the body depends on a balance of mineral salts, or electrolytes. 

When fluids become unbalanced, there are serious health consequences. The two main mineral salts that regulate this balance are sodium and potassium. Potassium is the primary mineral salt in intracellular fluid.  Sodium is the main mineral salt in between cells. If the balance of these mineral salts is not equal, cells can begin to shrink or swell up, and this leads to damage to the cells. 

Over time, cellular damage from electrolyte imbalance due to the lack of potassium can lead to a breakdown of tissue. Organs will begin to stop functioning properly and our health is compromised. 

The balance of water within our bodies even at the level of individuals cells depends on maintaining the proper amount of potassium

Essential for the nervous system

The nervous system relays signals from one part of the body to the brain and back again. This entire process is like an electrical transmitter. The key elements in this system are electrolytes. Potassium makes up some of these key electrolytes. 

Everything from muscle contraction, heartbeat, and reflexes are dependent on electrolyte signals. The entire system works as sodium electrolytes move signals into cells and potassium electrolytes move signals out of cells. Without the proper amount of potassium, nerve signals cannot flow, and systems shut down. Potassium is essential for nerve signals to function at all. 

Regulates muscle and heart contractions

As we noted, potassium is essential for the nervous system and this regulates muscles and the heart. Not enough potassium means signals to the muscles and the heart becomes weakened. Too much potassium can cause alterations in the signals to and from the heart.

What is more, any potassium deficiencies will also create an imbalance within the cells of the heart itself. This imbalance can lead to damage to the heart cells and damage to the heart tissue. This will result in weakened and flaccid blood vessels to and from the heart. 

An improper balance of potassium will lead to heart arrhythmia and irregular heartbeat, both of which can be fatal. 

Helps regulate blood pressure

High blood pressure afflicts one in three Americans. It is also the leading cause of heart disease worldwide. 

One of the leading causes of high blood pressure is excess sodium which can be the result of too little potassium. The balance of electrolytes inside and outside the cells relies on a balance of sodium and potassium. 

In a summary of multiple studies, researchers found that patients with high blood pressure who were given a potassium supplement experienced significant reductions in their diastolic and systolic blood pressures. 

Other studies have shown that a potassium-rich diet reduced blood pressure in participants aged 25-64. The simple presence of increased potassium in the diet can significantly reduce blood pressure. 

May prevent strokes

A stroke is caused when there is a lack of blood flow to the brain. More than 130,000 Americans die of strokes every year. Doctors now suggest that a potassium-rich diet can prevent many of these strokes. 

In research that included more than 100,00 participants, scientists found that people who maintained a potassium-rich diet were far less at risk for a stroke than people who did not pay attention to their potassium intake. 

Other studies have shown that increasing potassium in your diet or with the help of a supplement can lower the risk of strokes by as much as 21 percent. 

Prevents kidney stones

Kidney stones are hardened metals that form when urine is concentrated into crystals. One of the main crystals that form kidney stones is calcium citrate. Recent studies have shown that the presence of potassium reduces the formation of calcium citrate crystals. 

Since potassium bonds with the same ions as calcium, it can form potassium citrate which does not form kidney stones. One study found that simply eating a diet of potassium-rich foods lowers your risk of kidney stones by as much as 35 percent. 

Helps prevent osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become hollow, porous, and brittle. The mineral most often linked with osteoporosis is a deficiency of calcium.  But recent evidence suggests that a diet rich in potassium may also help prevent osteoporosis by reducing the amount of calcium the body loses through urine.

Scientists have found that people who are at risk for osteoporosis but get plenty of potassium appear to have the greatest bone mass. Premenopausal women, for example, who are a great risk for osteoporosis maintain a much high bone mass than those who do not get as much potassium

Sources of Potassium

The best source of potassium are foods that are high in potassium. Since potassium is so common in nature it is easy to find foods that are rich in potassium. Dietary sources of potassium include:

  • fruits, such as apricots, bananas, kiwi, oranges, and pineapples
  • vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, and potatoes
  • lean meats
  • whole grains
  • beans and nuts

Doctors recommend that you get potassium from your diet. Food sources are the most effective ways of getting the potassium you require. If for any reason you cannot get enough potassium in your diet, there are many reputable potassium supplements. Many multivitamins contain a full range of minerals including potassium. 

Potassium deficiency

As we noted from the outset, most Americans do not get enough potassium in their diets. This will lead to serious health problems. But an actual potassium deficiency is a serious health issue in itself. Low potassium leads to a condition called hypokalemia. Symptoms of potassium deficiency include:

  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Muscle cramps and spasms
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle aches and stiffness
  • Tingling and numbness in the hands, feet, and extremities
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Mood changes

If you are experiencing any combination of these things, see your doctor to rule out other causes. If it is determined that you do have a potassium deficiency, a supplement may be the best way to increase your potassium levels. 

Potassium dosage

The proper amount of potassium in a day is 4700 mg for most adults. Most people do not meet this general requirement. 

This is the dosage determined in the United States. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 3510 mg per day. In any case, it is widely known that people all over the world do not get enough potassium in their diets. 

Again, doctors agree that the best way to get the potassium you need is through dietary sources of potassium. There are many great potassium supplements if you find it difficult to eat the foods necessary to achieve proper potassium levels. 

Potassium risks

Getting too much potassium can present problems. Too much potassium is harmful. Excessive potassium leads to what is called hyperkalemia in which the kidneys cannot remove enough of the potassium to get it below toxic levels. 

Hyperkalemia will mostly be either symptomless or present very few symptoms. However, when symptoms do present, they are similar to those that occur in hypokalemia. Severe or sudden hyperkalemia can cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and chest pain. At this stage, hyperkalemia can become a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Conclusion 

Getting enough vitamins and minerals is one of those things we all know from childhood. We see this direction on cereal boxes from an early age. Even into adulthood, most of us are well aware that we should pay attention to making sure we get the minerals we need in our diet every day. 

However, the reality for most of us is that we simply do not pay close enough attention to the mineral we consume, and one of the most common things we overlook is potassium. Potassium is an essential mineral for overall health. 

Potassium provides benefits to us at the level of individual cells, and without it, the damage stems from the cells outward. The benefits of potassium include the maintenance of everything from our brains to the blood in our veins. We need potassium to function properly. 

Still, most people do not get enough potassium in their diets. Those feelings of fatigue and listlessness could be the result of a potassium deficiency and the solution to those feelings may be as simple as eating potassium-rich foods.   

Since potassium is such a vital nutrient and it is so essential for life, it is found in many common food sources. The best way to get enough potassium for your health is by eating a potassium-rich diet. If you find that you simply cannot get enough potassium in your diet for any reason, numerous reputable and healthy supplements contain all the potassium you need to maintain your health. 

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