When I think of potassium, I think of bananas, potatoes, and muscle cramps. In fact, I normally only eat a banana when my foot starts to cramp regularly! But, I know I have a very narrow view of the role potassium plays in our body and diet. So, I decided to do some digging and uncover the true power of potassium.
Potassium In The Body
Most of us have heard of electrolytes.
These tiny ions are integral because they support hydration, muscle function, and much more. Sodium and chloride are both essential electrolytes.
But do you know what is more essential? Potassium! Potassium is the #1 positive ion is the body! Moreover, it:
- helps regulate water and acid-base balance in the body
- allows our nerves to send messages easily
- maintains muscle contractions
- it helps our body use protein and carbs
- potassium also helps our body store glucose
Too Little, or Too Much?
When we do not consume enough potassium, we become hypokalemic. Hypokalemia can cause many symptoms, including weakness, fatigue, cramps, constipation, or irregular heartbeats.
You know that day you went on a long hike and you forgot to bring water and snacks? Remember how water didn’t cut it when you were back at the car? Potassium and other electrolytes are key for body function. Without them, our body shuts down.
Therefore, low potassium levels can be caused by vomiting, diarrhea, kidney damage, or medications. Luckily, it is easily treated!
Hyperkalemia, on the other hand, is when your body has too much potassium.
Moreover, kidney disease and some medications can cause your body to retain too much potassium. Basically, if your body cannot remove potassium the way it normally does, you may be in trouble!
Luckily, if you are at risk of hyperkalemia, it will be monitored by your doctor. You may feel some irregular heart beats, but overall, the doc will take the lead.
Dietary Sources of Potassium
So where can you find potassium? How do you know you are getting enough? How much potassium do you actually need in your diet?
The average adult should be eating about 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day. For reference, your average banana contains 425 mg of potassium.
- Leafy greens (600-1,000 mg/cooked cup)
- Kidney beans (600 mg/cup)
- Sun-dried tomatoes & tomato sauce (1,800 mg/cup)
- Potatoes (around 900 mg)
- Citrus fruits
- Bananas (425 mg)
- Avocados (975 mg/avocado)
- Raisins & apricots (1,500 mg/ 1/3 cup)
- Whole grains
- Seeds & nuts
- Fish (around 500 mg)
Therefore, if you are eating a healthy, well-rounded diet, and you do not have any health concerns, you are likely getting enough potassium! Whole foods are the best way to get your recommended potassium. Why? Because fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein are packed with other nutrients that your body needs!
High Blood Pressure & Potassium
If you have read my previous articles, you know that I liked to explore nutrition beyond the basics. I am a big believer that a healthy diet can impact our health in the moment and years down the line.
Hypertension, aka high blood pressure, is a common condition.
Initially, we discussed how potassium and sodium are both important electrolytes. Well, we are supposed to consume the two nutrients at a ratio of 2:1 (double the amount of potassium than sodium).
Unfortunately, the modern American diet flips the script. We eat a lot of salt (sodium chloride), and not nearly as many fruits and veggies as we should. Likewise, the flipped script leads to health problems, including hypertension.
What do we need to know about high blood pressure and potassium?
Well, it’s something we already know, in a way.
When we eat more fruits and veggies, our blood pressure decreases. When we eat enough potassium (and limit our sodium) hypertension can disappear!
How does this work?
Potassium eases tension. Furthermore, it binds to sodium, which is lost through the urine. When we combine these effects, we see a decrease in blood pressure!
Diabetes & Diet
In this section, I will be focusing on Type II diabetes.
Type II diabetes occurs when your body cannot make enough insulin or does not properly use insulin. This creates problems with blood sugar.
While there are risk factors, like family history, Type II diabetes can largely be avoided by diet.
So, where does potassium come into play?
Overall, it comes down to the relationship between potassium and insulin.
The more potassium we eat, the more insulin our body produces. When we produce more insulin, our blood sugar levels are effectively managed.
Additionally, potassium-rich foods are important for a healthy diet! When we eat a diet rich in healthy foods, we tend to manage our weight better and have more energy for healthy habits.
It is important to note, however, that high potassium foods alone do not reduce diabetes risk. A healthy diet should be combined with portioning and exercise.
Mental Health: Do Potatoes Make You Happy?
Potatoes, and other potassium-rich foods, do make me happy! But is there a scientific relationship between potassium and mental health?
In general, a high potassium diet appears to be related to:
- Decreased symptoms of depression
- Relief from pain symptoms
- Lowered symptoms of fatigue
Moreover, extremely low potassium levels appear to be related to psychosis-like symptoms. In one patient, when the doctors treated her hypokalemia, her delusions disappeared.
Why does this matter?
Well, if you are new to this website, potassium reaffirms the need for medicine to approach health holistically. We cannot separate the mind from the body.
Additionally, this signifies how bias can impact perception.
In the case study of the woman above, she had repeatedly been sent to the ER for psychosis-like symptoms. The doctors always noted dangerously low potassium levels at each visit. Yet, they did not always treat her low potassium levels.
If you see someone as crazy, do you automatically treat them as crazy?
Disturbances in the body can manifest as mental illness. For example, an individual can become violent when they have a brain tumor. Dehydration can make someone sluggish and inattentive.
When doctors respond by prescribing antidepressants or other psycho-pharmaceuticals without a proper physical, biological (and easily addressed) symptoms can be missed.
I am not saying that there isn’t a time and a place for psycho-pharmaceuticals. However, we should all remember that our bodies play a role in our mental state. I believe all humans deserve the dignity of having their health addressed holistically, whatever malady they face.
The Power of Potassium: A Summary
Clearly, potassium is important. It keeps our heart healthy, lowers blood pressure, and helps manage insulin levels. Furthermore, potassium can impact mood, and help manage chronic pain!
Luckily, potassium can be found in many foods. Potatoes, bananas, dried fruits, leafy green, and nuts are a few quality potassium sources. A diet high in potassium also tends to be high in fiber and other important vitamins and nutrients. Win, win!
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Thank you for reading!