Everybody knows that it’s important to get a good amount of vitamins and minerals in your diet. While there are more than two dozen important vitamins and minerals you should consume daily, certain ones, like vitamins C, D, and calcium tend to get the most attention.
But there is one overshadowed mineral — potassium — that is just as important as these, if not more so. The health benefits associated with a potassium-rich diet are so numerous and powerful. It’s definitely worth giving it a bit of time in the spotlight.
Potassium is classified as an electrolyte, which means that when it is dissolved in water, it produces positively charged ions. That property allows it to conduct electricity, which makes it vital for many processes throughout the body, the first of which is regulating fluid.
In And Out
As you probably know, the body is mostly made up of water. Water within the body travels between two major fluid compartments. These fluid compartments are the Intercellular (IFC) and Extracellular (EFC) compartments — comprising 40 percent and 20 percent of the body’s total weight, respectively.
The amount of water in the ICF and EFC is balanced by their concentration of respective electrolytes. Potassium is the primary electrolyte in the IFC, whereas sodium is the primary electrolyte in the ECF. The body changes its levels of these electrolytes within the cells, ensuring the water in the body is where it needs to be, through a process called osmolality.
Potassium is also important for the functioning of the nervous system. The nervous system relays messages between the brain and body in the form of nerve impulses. These impulses are electrical signals that control muscle contractions, heartbeat, reflexes, and many other body functions.
The body generates nerve impulses by moving sodium ions into cells and potassium ions out of cells, which changes the voltage of the cell. When a person doesn’t have enough potassium in their blood, it affects the body’s ability to generate those nerve impulses.
About 80 percent of the potassium in your body is found inside the cells of your muscles, including the heart. Inside those cells, potassium ions, magnesium ions, and calcium ions all work together in a complicated process to cause all muscle contractions and relaxation.
Potassium is very important in maintaining a regular heartbeat. When potassium levels in the blood are too high, the heart can become dilated, it’s contractions can weaken, and the heartbeat can become abnormal. Having potassium levels that are too low, on the other hand, can cause heart palpitations.
When the heart doesn’t beat properly, it doesn’t effectively pump blood to the brain, organs, and muscles, causing any number of problems. In the most extreme cases, a potassium imbalance can lead to sudden death.
You probably don’t have to worry about having too much potassium in your system. It typically occurs only when a person takes too many potassium supplements or if a person has trouble removing the mineral through urination.
Other Medical Problems
The latter issue usually occurs when a person has poor kidney function or chronic kidney disease. For healthy adults, medical science suggests it’s very difficult to get too much potassium from foods.
If your diet is rich in potassium, the health benefits that result are quite impressive. It can be a big help with high blood pressure, a problem that affects a third of Americans. Numerous studies have shown that a potassium-rich diet can significantly reduce high blood pressure.
Guarding Against Stroke
It can also help protect against a stroke. A stroke happens when there is a lack of blood flow to the brain, which causes terrible symptoms and kills 130,000 Americans each year. Numerous studies have shown that those who eat potassium-rich diets reduce their risk of stroke by more than 20 percent.
It helps prevent osteoporosis as well. Osteoporosis, a condition where bones become hollow and porous, is linked to low levels of calcium. A potassium-rich diet helps prevent it by reducing how much calcium is lost through urine.
By helping to regulate the amount of calcium found in the urine, a potassium-rich diet also helps reduce the risk of kidney stones. The clumps of material, commonly calcium, that build up in the kidney and can cause excruciating pain. That risk is reduced by about 50 percent for men and 35 percent for women, who consume the most potassium daily.
Water Retention Problems
Consuming more potassium may also be the solution for people who have problems with water retention. A high potassium intake fights water retention by increasing urine production while at the same time reducing sodium levels.
In order to receive all of these benefits, most health authorities agree that getting 3,500 to 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day seems to be the optimal amount. Thankfully, incorporating more potassium-rich foods in your diet can be easy and delicious.
Generally speaking, all you need to do to get more potassium in your diet is eat more fruits and vegetables. Popular fruits that contain plenty of potassium include bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, and avocado. Some dried fruits like prunes, raisins, and dates are good sources as well.
If you’re more of a fan of leafy greens, you have plenty of options, too. Cooked spinach, raw kale, and the various kinds of chard are all good sources of potassium. But the most potassium-rich leafy greens are cooked beet greens, which actually have the highest concentration of potassium of any food.
If you want something more substantial, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams are potassium rich, as are pinto beans, peas, and portobello mushrooms. The one meat standout in terms of potassium content, is salmon.
Talk To Your Doctor
For most people, changing up their diet is a better option for increasing potassium intake compared to taking an over-the-counter supplement, though your doctor may prescribe a supplement if you suffer from a deficiency. While it never hurts to add a few more fruits and veggies to your diet, you should consult your doctor about any major changes in what you eat or if you want to take a supplement.