Your body needs many different minerals and vitamins to function.
However, few are as important to your overall health and well-being as potassium.
This mineral is the third most abundant substance in your cells.
It is responsible for many important functions and processes.
This is why it is crucial that you eat a healthy diet containing plenty of sources of this essential nutrient.
What exactly does potassium do for you?
The better question would be, what doesn’t it do?
From maintaining healthy fluid levels, keeping your heart healthy, promoting effective nerve impulse transmission, keeping blood sugar levels regulated and improving kidney function, potassium is very important for your overall health.
This guide explores the many health benefits of this amazing mineral and why you should include it as a part of your healthy diet.
Every cell in your body requires potassium for its proper maintenance and functioning.
This essential mineral is among the most abundant in your body.
There are high concentrations within red blood, liver, bone and muscle cells (1).
While nearly all potassium resides within cell walls, a very small percentage remains outside of each cell to help maintain the proper electrical balance necessary for all living creatures.
Potassium’s principal function is to regulate fluid concentration and flow within a cell and across the cell membrane.
When potassium is pumped into a cell using Na-K-ATPase enzymes, this mineral enters, while sodium is pushed out of the cell (2).
Therefore, potassium also helps to regulate the sodium levels of cells.
Your body needs enough potassium to control muscle contractions, transmit nerve impulses, prevent excess fluid retention and for the proper functioning of your heart, liver, and kidneys.
Potassium helps you maintain the proper pH levels within your body, while also allowing for muscle building and growth.
It is essential for nearly all bodily functions.
Without it, you can experience serious health problems (3).
Potassium Deficiency Dangers
While many people do not get enough potassium in their diets, true potassium deficiency (where you lack enough of this mineral for basic metabolic functions) is rare (4).
However, it is important to be careful.
Currently, less than three in one hundred people exceed the recommended daily intake of this mineral.
This means that nearly all of us are in danger of becoming deficient.
Several conditions and diseases can cause potassium deficiency.
Among these are chronic diarrhea or vomiting, kidney disease, or taking certain medications.
How can you tell if you have a potassium deficiency?
You should watch out for these symptoms: (5)
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle weakness
- Abdominal pain
At its most severe levels, potassium deficiency also can lead to abnormal heartbeat, impaired breathing, or paralysis, all of which can lead to death (6).
Your doctor can test your blood to determine your serum potassium levels.
This determines how much of this mineral is in your blood.
The healthy or normal range for this essential nutrient is between 3.5 and 5.5 millimoles per liter (7).
When your levels are near or below 2.5 millimoles per liter, your risk for disease or death rises significantly.
Having a serum potassium level lower than 3.5 millimoles per liter is known as hypokalemia.
Among those most at risk for developing hyperkalemia are those with kidney or digestive problems, those who sweat a lot, people on extreme weight-reduction programs, alcoholics and those who eat an extremely malnourished diet (8).
You can also have too much potassium.
This condition, known as hyperkalemia, occurs when your serum potassium levels exceed 5.5 millimoles per liter.
Anything above 6.5 millimoles per liter places you at significant risk of death (9).
The most common causes of hyperkalemia include adrenal insufficiency, kidney failure, or trauma that has caused extensive tissue damage.
In some cases, high serum potassium levels do not accurately reflect your total potassium levels in your body.
Therefore, additional tests may be necessary to determine if you are actually facing a dangerous medical condition.
Dietary and Supplementary Sources of Potassium
Potassium is needed by all your cells to perform important metabolic functions, so getting enough of this mineral in your diet is crucial.
If you eat a diet comprised of mostly processed foods, you are likely not getting enough potassium in your daily food intake.
The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the higher your intake of this important mineral.
The best sources of potassium in foods include white beans, lima beans, avocado, broccoli, sweet potatoes, bananas, salmon, peas, sardines, and grapefruit.
Other fruits, dark leafy greens, tomatoes, squash, mushrooms, and nuts are also excellent plant-based sources of this nutrient (10).
When you eat foods that contain potassium, your body is able to absorb about 90 percent of it during digestion in the small intestine (11).
Your body does not store potassium but only uses what it needs in the cells.
Any excess potassium you consume that is not taken into cells is, therefore, excreted.
Most excretion is through your urine, with lesser amounts being shed through sweat and feces (12).
It is, therefore, crucial that you eat potassium every day so that you can provide your cells with the supply it needs to function well.
If you do not get enough potassium from the foods you eat, and your doctor recommends them, you can take supplements.
However, most healthy adults do not need to take a supplement.
Unless you have a disorder that prevents potassium absorption or you have certain medical conditions that influence potassium use, you should rely on your diet to provide you with the nutrients you need.
There are many different forms of nutritional supplements containing potassium salts.
Because it is possible to take too much of this mineral, you should only take potassium supplements under the supervision of a doctor.
For those with healthy kidney function, you need about 4.7 grams per day of potassium.
If your kidney function is impaired, you should take a lower dose (13).
To prevent toxicity from taking too much of this mineral, supplements and vitamins are limited to 100 milligrams of potassium per pill.
If you want to take more than this amount, you should consult with your doctor.
Potassium’s Health Benefits
Without enough potassium, you would quickly start to feel the negative effects on your health.
Your potassium levels are what keep your heart working properly, your kidneys functioning at full capacity, your blood sugar regulated and much more.
Medical researchers continue to learn about this essential nutrient and all that it does for our bodies.
We share the most important medical information about potassium below.
Improved Heart Health
For those with hypertension, potassium could be the answer.
The beneficial effects of this mineral on blood pressure are likely due to its ability to regulate fluid levels in the body, while also influencing the nervous system and hormone regulation.
In clinical trials, taking potassium supplements was shown to reduce blood pressure for those with hypertension (14).
This includes helping those with high sodium intake, which is known to raise blood pressure (15).
By reducing blood pressure, you also lower your risk of having a stroke, heart attack and for developing coronary heart disease.
Hypertension is more common among African Americans than other races since genetics makes this group more susceptible to salt sensitivity.
African Americans would, therefore, benefit from eating a potassium-rich diet (17).
In all races, those who eat food high in potassium can often control their hypertension without medications (18).
In addition to lowering blood pressure, potassium may also help reduce your risk of having a stroke (19).
In one metanalysis of the literature on this mineral, researchers found that increasing your potassium intake by just under two grams each day, you can reduce your stroke risk by over 20 percent (20).
Those who raise their potassium, even more, had a 40 percent reduction in the incidence of death by stroke (21).
Individuals who eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruit per day have a 26 percent lower risk of having a stroke than those who eat less produce (22).
Finally, potassium helps your heart, by reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Those who enjoy a high-potassium diet are less likely to have and to die from cardiovascular disease (23).
Regulates Fluid Balance
Your body is mostly water (over 60 percent) (24).
Almost half of that water is contained within your cell walls as a part of intracellular fluid.
The rest of that water can be found in your spinal fluid, blood and other areas between your cells.
Electrolytes, like sodium or potassium, influence the amount of water that is found both within and between your cells.
Your cells determine how much water to keep inside the cell walls using potassium, and your sodium levels determine how much water is pushed outside.
When your electrolyte levels are not balanced, your body will move water from one area to another to equalize these concentrations, which can leave your cells without enough or too much water (25).
Ensuring you have enough potassium within your cells is, therefore, crucial to maintaining proper water levels both within and outside of your cells.
When you have good fluid balance, you have a better chance of being healthy.
Dehydration is the result of inadequate fluid balance, and this condition influences your kidneys and heart, among other organs and tissues (26).
Improved Bone Health
Potassium also plays a crucial role in healthy bone cells.
When you eat a healthy diet that is rich in potassium, especially vegetables and fruits, you are more likely to have higher bone density.
Bone density is important for preventing degenerative diseases, like osteoporosis (27).
If you do not get enough potassium from your diet, taking potassium supplements can increase bone formation rates while preventing bone deterioration (28).
Menopause is a time when women lose bone density.
One study showed that postmenopausal women who take supplements had reduced hone loss (29).
Reduced Risk for Diabetes
When you have low levels of potassium, your cells are more likely to become insulin resistant.
This can lead to increased blood sugar levels.
This condition is more common among those undergoing certain medical treatments and those of African-American descent (32).
In more than one study, low potassium levels have been associated with decreased glucose tolerance in cells, which is usually because of a reduction in insulin production by the pancreas.
Over time, your body adjusts and changes how it metabolizes glucose.
As a result, you can develop diabetes (33).
Those with normal or high metabolic rates have higher potassium intake and serum potassium levels (34).
Promotes Nervous System Function
Your body sends messages from your brain to your various muscles, organs, and other tissues through your nervous system, which includes millions of nerves.
Messages are sent along the pathways and transmitted from one nerve to the next and finally to its intended location using nerve impulses.
This messaging system is responsible for muscle contractions, reflexes, your heartbeat and many other functions (35).
These nerve impulses are all generated when sodium ions move into a cell, and potassium ions move out of a cell.
This means your electrolyte levels play a significant role in your nervous system function.
When these ions move into and out of cells, it changes the electrical charge of that cell, activating the nerve impulse mechanism (36).
The lower your potassium levels, the more likely nerve impulse will be missed or deteriorated.
Therefore, getting enough of this mineral in your diet is crucial to healthy nerve function (37).
Reduces Arthritis Pain and Inflammation
Arthritis is a type of autoimmune disease that is characterized by inflammation and pain in the joints.
When you have high levels of potassium in your body, your body can produce essential hormones, especially cortisol, which can alleviate many of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (38).
In one study, a significant percentage of the participants who took supplemental potassium for four weeks experienced some level of reduced arthritis pain (39).
Boosts Kidney Function and Health
Your kidneys help to filter and eliminate wastes and toxins from your body.
Therefore, keeping them healthy is important.
By lowering blood pressure, this mineral helps protect against vascular lesions in the kidney and by reducing the inflammation that contributes to the symptoms of chronic kidney disease (42).
When you have chronically low levels of this important nutrient, your kidneys actually change in structure and function, while also encouraging the formation of cysts within the kidneys (43).
Interstitial nephritis or kidney inflammation is also a common side effect of chronic potassium depletion (44).
Along with potassium, magnesium also helps to keep kidneys strong and healthy and prevent damage (45).
Those with a diet higher in potassium are also less likely to develop kidney stones (46).
Kidney stones are usually comprised of calcium deposits, and potassium decreases the excretion of calcium in the urine, thereby lowering your risk of developing deposits of that mineral in the kidneys (47).
Taking a potassium supplement could help you reduce the severity of symptoms associated with kidney stones, while also reducing their size (48).
Protects Muscles from Deterioration
For older people, protecting muscle mass from deterioration helps to prevent injury and allows you to live longer and healthier.
Eating foods that have higher levels of potassium have been shown to help preserve muscle mass and protect them from the effects of aging (49).
By increasing bone density and reducing muscle wasting, a diet focuses on foods that are rich in potassium is also naturally healthier and lower in acids that are known to contribute to the loss of muscle and bone tissue.
Provides Antioxidant Support
Because potassium has antioxidant effects, it can help protect your blood vessels, blood cells, and tissues from oxidative stress.
This process causes cellular damage and can lead to cardiovascular damage over time.
By blocking the production of interleukin IL-17A, a pro-inflammatory cytokine, potassium helps keep inflammation levels low, which reduces the oxidative stress and other damaging processes throughout the body (50).
If you have chronic or elevated levels of stress in your life, or if you suffer from anxiety, it is important that you get enough potassium in your diet.
This mineral is known to help protect against the effects of stress, including regulating hormones that are released during stressful situations (51).
Excess amounts of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, cause long-term damage to your cells and lead to physical damage if left unchecked.
Protects Brain Health and Cognition
Because it fights oxidative stress and inflammation, potassium could play a key role in preventing the onset or progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
When you have sufficient levels of potassium, your brain can process specific amyloid proteins in its tissues and decrease the rate of amyloid plaque buildup, which is the leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease (52).
Those with higher potassium levels are known to experience improvement in cognitive performance, which can be severely affected by this form of dementia.
Protects Against Severe Protein Malnutrition
Severe types of malnutrition can lead to death and impaired heart function.
One type, known as kwashiorkor, results from a severe lack of protein.
Taking potassium supplements can help reduce the risk of death by this condition, by protecting the heart and improving the function of the immune system (53).
Reduces Side Effects of Certain Medications
While lithium is an effective drug for treating manic-depression and other forms of psychosis, it does have negative effects on the kidneys.
The dangers of lithium include damaging kidney function and leading to excessive urination, as well as reducing the kidney’s ability to concentrate urine.
When your kidneys malfunction, it can also lead to rising acid levels within the body’s tissues.
When you eat enough potassium, you can protect your kidneys from this type of damage by lowering how much lithium is reabsorbed by the kidneys (54), as well as encouraging your tissues to eliminate this medication.
Both mechanisms protect from a toxic lithium buildup.
Helps Keep Gums Healthy
By lowering inflammation and fighting oxidative stress, potassium-rich foods can also improve your oral health and reduce the severity of gum disease (55).
Using oral-care products that contain potassium, is also shown to improve tooth sensitivity for many people (56).
Precautions and Interactions
When you get your potassium supply from a healthy diet, you will not experience any negative side effects.
For those who take supplements of this mineral, you may experience side effects, including abdominal discomfort (57).
Other digestive problems, including lesions, ulcerations, and delayed stomach emptying, have also been seen in those taking potassium chloride supplements (58).
Anyone with a history of stomach ulcers or digestive bleeding should talk with their doctor before taking potassium since it irritates the gut lining (59).
Those who have kidney disease or kidney failure should consult with a doctor, before taking potassium supplements.
Your kidney health is crucial to regulating potassium levels (60).
Potassium plays a vital role in your overall health. It should, therefore, be included in a healthy diet.
Foods rich in potassium also contain other essential nutrients that can be good for your health.
Potassium’s role as an electrolyte means that it helps to balance fluid levels within the body, which is crucial for heart health and organ function.
Potassium is crucial for maintaining blood pressure, for the effective function of your kidneys and for keeping your nervous system and bones healthy.
Eating enough potassium will ensure that you reduce the effects of oxidative stress on your body, which lowers your risk of stroke, heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease and many other chronic and even fatal diseases.
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