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Potassium is an essential mineral that is found in many plant-based foods. It’s widely used for preventing and addressing muscle cramps, but it has many other benefits.
What is Potassium?
Potassium is important for many functions in the body and it’s common to not get enough from dietary sources alone. The first line of defense is to make dietary modifications to increase potassium since food sources are plentiful. Supplements can fill in gaps as needed.
Potassium is a nutrient of public health concern, like B vitamins. But unlike the B vitamins, it is not used in food fortification programs. This is because while there is generally little risk from getting too many B vitamins, excess doses of potassium can lead to arrhythmia. This effect is not found from eating high amounts of potassium-based foods but could be a problem if it were used in fortified foods and can be a concern with supplement forms.
Potassium levels in the body are tightly regulated because too little can result in muscles that can’t function (including the heart) and too much can overstimulate the muscles, resulting in heart palpitations and, in extreme cases, paralysis or heart failure. While these are extremes, it’s important to understand that the body needs potassium in a fine balance. Since potassium can be found in electrolyte supplements, it could be easy to accidentally consume too much. Even when kept in balance with other electrolytes, too much potassium can be hard on the muscles, heart, and kidneys.
Contrary to assumptions, and unlike zinc, very little potassium is lost in sweat. Even though it is an electrolyte, it does not need to be replaced in high amounts just because of vigorous athletic performance or sweating.
Health Benefits of Potassium
- Acts as an intracellular cation and is required to maintain fluid volume within the cells
- Supports healthy blood pressure and circulation
- Protects against stroke
- Supports healthy muscle contraction and prevents cramping
- Protects against kidney stone formation
Food Sources of Potassium
There are many food sources of potassium, including:
- Dried apricots
- Acorn squash
While many don’t get enough potassium in their diets for optimal intake, most do not have a true deficiency. Hypokalemia, or a severe condition of low potassium, does not occur from simply not eating enough potassium.
Low levels of potassium can be caused by chronic vomiting or diarrhea, along with other causes of prolonged dehydration. Side effects of certain drugs, like diuretics, can also lead to potassium levels that are insufficient. Eating disorders and malnutrition can also cause potassium insufficiency or deficiency.
Certain medications may also cause hypokalemia, including antibiotics, antifungal drugs, and diuretics. Excessive caffeine intake can even lead to low levels of potassium.
High potassium levels can often be caused by taking too much supplemental potassium or by being on a prescription that is associated with hyperkalemia (excessive potassium). You can take a normal amount of supplemental potassium and still experience hyperkalemia if you also take certain medications, like blood thinners, NSAIDs, diuretics, beta-blockers, and others. Always check with your healthcare provider about drug and supplement interactions if you require pharmaceuticals.
Today’s Simple Step
As you eat normally today, write down how many foods from the above list are on your plate. You can even take it one step further and track your dietary intake with an app or food journal, and calculate your total potassium intake at the end of the day.