Do you live in a hot climate or tend to sweat a lot when you exercise? If so, you may need to pay attention to your potassium intake. Low potassium can cause muscle cramping and cardiovascular issues, so it’s important to make sure you're getting enough of this essential mineral in your diet.
Why is potassium important?
Along with chloride and sodium, potassium is one of your body’s most important electrolytes—which are minerals in your blood, urine, and bodily fluids that contain an electric charge. Cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses throughout the body. These charges help cells communicate with each other and give you the ability to taste, see, smell, touch, and hear. Nearly all of the potassium in your body is found in with cells (in bodily fluids like plasma, blood, and sweat) while the rest is stored in bones. Potassium is mainly regulated by the kidney's and is primarily lost in urine. But you will lose potassium when you sweat. And more sweat equals more potassium lost.
In addition to helping to maintain a proper fluid balance in your body, potassium also performs the following functions:
- Keeps the blood from clotting
- Maintains the body’s pH balance
- Carries nutrients to the cells
- Maintains healthy blood pressure
- Preserves bone health
Athletes should be especially concerned with their potassium intake; potassium is involved in muscle and nerve contraction. The frequency and degree to which your muscles contract is heavily dependent on the right amount of potassium in the body. When potassium is deficient in the diet, or when the movement of potassium through the body is blocked, your nervous and muscular systems can become compromised. A sufficient amount of potassium is essential for keeping your muscular system running smoothly, so make sure you’re getting enough! The Adequate Intake (AI) for potassium is 2,600 mg for women and 3,400 mg for men per day, but most Americans don’t get enough potassium in their diets.
Because potassium is lost through sweat and urine daily, you need to be consuming potassium-rich foods regularly to replenish. Since athletes tend to lose more potassium through sweat, they need to be even more mindful. Low potassium levels can reduce your energy and endurance. A recent Australian study with highly trained athletes showed that drinking a caffeinated beverage immediately before exercise can help to maintain adequate potassium levels in your blood and delay fatigue during your workout.
What role does potassium play in blood pressure?
Many people know that high sodium intake is associated with hypertension, or high blood pressure. A reduction in dietary sodium will help to lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure, but new evidence suggests that optimum dietary potassium intake is important for keeping your blood pressure and heart healthy.
So, how does potassium affect blood pressure? The kidneys regulate the body’s potassium levels; the more potassium present in the body, the more sodium is excreted through urine. By eliminating excess sodium, potassium works to relieve pressure on artery walls.
Many doctors recommend that hypertensive patients should adhere to the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan. The DASH diet is intentionally high in potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and low in total fat, saturated fat, and sodium. If you have high blood pressure, check out the DASH plan to see how you can reduce your risk of hypertension. A key component of the DASH plan is to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, which can simultaneously increase or maintain your blood plasma levels of potassium. The diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products—a healthy eating plan that has been shown to have protective effects against osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
What are dietary sources of potassium?
Potassium is found in a wide variety of foods. Bananas are famously associated with potassium and are frequently given out after athletic events in order to promote muscle recovery. Fresh fruits, especially citrus and melons, and vegetables, especially leafy greens and broccoli, are an important source of potassium. You can also find the mineral in fish, most meats, and milk. Sweet potatoes and legumes like lima and kidney beans are also high in potassium. Sports drinks, however, are typically a poor source of potassium.
What happens if you don’t get enough potassium?
Because so many foods contain potassium, it’s difficult to have a deficiency that results from inadequate dietary intake. But remember that the body loses potassium each day through urination and sweat. So, if you live in a hot climate, visit steam rooms or hot yoga studios, or regularly engage in strenuous exercise, it’s important to make sure that your body has an adequate supply of potassium. Even a moderate reduction in your potassium levels can result in salt sensitivity and hypertension. Low potassium levels also lead to greater risk of bone loss; consuming adequate potassium helps to maintain bone mineral density.
Hypokalemia, the medical condition that results from a potassium deficiency, can happen concurrently with certain diseases or can result from taking water pills for the treatment of high blood pressure. Also, many medications—including diuretics, laxatives, and steroids—can cause potassium loss. If you are taking any of these medications, it’s important to get your blood levels of potassium checked regularly.
Can potassium levels be too high?
Hyperkalemia occurs when there is too much potassium in the blood. But this doesn't happen from eating too many potassium rich foods. Severe dehydration can lead to hyperkalemia. And it's also a concern for those with impaired kidney function (especially in people receiving dialysis), or as a result of some infections or abnormal breakdown of protein.
How do you know if you’re getting a healthy amount of potassium?
Your body will definitely let you know if you’re not getting enough potassium. If you’ve been experiencing muscle cramping or high levels of thirst, you might want to get your potassium levels checked. The InsideTracker Ultimate Plan tests blood potassium levels so you won’t be left guessing about what’s going on in your body. If your potassium intake is low, InsideTracker will give you some recommendations about how to increase the amount of potassium in your diet, and introduce you to some new foods that will help you do that.
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