Potassium

Potassium is a very important mineral for the proper function of all cells, tissues, and organs in the human body. It is also an electrolyte, a substance that conducts electricity in the body, along with sodium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Potassium is crucial to heart function and plays a key role in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction, making it important for normal digestive and muscular function. Many foods contain potassium, including all meats, some types of fish (such as salmon, cod, and flounder), and many fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Dairy products are also good sources of potassium.

Having too much potassium in the blood is called hyperkalemia; having too little is known as hypokalemia. Keeping the right potassium balance in the body depends on the amount of sodium and magnesium in the blood. Too much sodium, common in Western diets that use a lot of salt, may increase the need for potassium. Diarrhea, vomiting, excessive sweating, malnutrition, malabsorption syndromes, such as Crohn disease, can also cause potassium deficiency. Use of a kind of heart medicine called loop diuretics can also cause you to be short on potassium.

Most people get all of the potassium they need from a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits. Older people have a greater risk of hyperkalemia because their kidneys are less efficient at eliminating potassium as they age. Older people should be careful when taking medication that may affect potassium levels, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and ACE inhibitors.

Whatever your age, talk to your doctor before taking potassium supplements.

Bone Health

Studies show a positive link between a diet rich in potassium and bone health, particularly among elderly women. This suggests that increasing consumption of foods rich in potassium may play a role in preventing osteoporosis. More research is needed to determine whether a diet high in potassium can reduce bone turnover in people.

Hypokalemia

The most important use of potassium is to treat the symptoms of hypokalemia (low potassium), which include weakness, lack of energy, muscle cramps, stomach disturbances, an irregular heartbeat, and an abnormal EKG (electrocardiogram, a test that measures heart function). Hypokalemia usually happens when the body loses too much potassium in the urine or intestines. It is rarely caused by a lack of potassium in the diet. Hypokalemia can be life threatening and should always be treated by a doctor.

High Blood Pressure

Some studies have linked low levels of potassium in the diet with high blood pressure. There is also evidence that potassium supplements might cause a slight drop in blood pressure. Other studies suggest that increasing potassium intake reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, possibly because of potassium's blood pressure lowering effects. Not all studies agree. Two large studies found no effect on blood pressure. It may be that taking potassium helps lower blood pressure only if you are deficient in the mineral. Before taking potassium or any supplement for high blood pressure, talk to your doctor.

Heart Disease

Studies show that people with a higher sodium-potassium ratio have a higher risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality. Other studies show that heart attack patients who have moderate potassium levels, between 3.5 and 4.5 mEq/L, have a lower risk of death.

Stroke

People who get a lot of potassium in their diet have a lower risk of stroke, especially ischemic stroke. However, potassium supplements do not seem to produce the same benefit.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

People with IBD (ulcerative colitis or Crohn disease) often have trouble absorbing nutrients from their intestines, and may have low levels of potassium and other important nutrients. If you have IBD, your doctor may check your potassium levels and recommend a supplement.

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Review Date: 8/5/2015  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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