Potassium, an Often Forgotten Nutrient
Posted: March 24, 2017
How much potassium is needed each day? Most people don’t ever consider this question because we don’t see much information shared about what it does in the body. Many Americans do not get nearly the recommended intake of potassium each day which is 4,700 milligrams. The people who are aware of how much they take each day in their diets or by supplements are usually those who suffer from kidney (renal) disease or disorder. Excessive potassium in the body is called hyperkalemia, and can be deadly for those with inadequate kidney function.
Potassium plays many roles in the body, such as controlling the electrical activity of the heart, building muscles, and regulating the body’s acid-base balance. Mostly we think about the mineral sodium when we consider what to reduce in the diet to control blood pressure. But, according to Elena Kukina, MD, PhD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mark Houston, MD, MS at Vanderbilt Medical School, increasing potassium levels along with a decrease in sodium intake can actually reduce a person’s risks of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
One common concern for people eating high amounts of potassium is that they think it will put them at risk of developing kidney stones, but it is often the opposite scenario; the decrease in calcium excretion due to an increase in potassium intake may reduce the risk of kidney stones. Actually, two well-known prospective health studies showed that increases in milligrams of potassium equaling 3,458mg. in women and 4,000mg. in men respectively, was 50-65% less likely to cause the development of kidney stones.
Muscle wasting and osteoporosis are two other health conditions that can result from inadequate potassium intakes. The rich potassium content of a diet high in fruits and vegetables has a favorable effect on muscle health due to the production of an alkaline environment in the body. An excess of protein foods and grain products can produce a more acidic state, contributing to nitrogen loss and muscle wasting. The neutralization of acids in the body by the increase of potassium-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables will help to protect the muscle from chronic wasting. Studies show that with increased intake of potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, bone density (the measure used for osteoporosis) showed little change; however, the benefit to muscle mass can help stabilize bones and also help prevent falls and fractures common in the elderly.
As a dietitian/nutritionist, I often recommend increasing potassium-rich foods instead of supplements, as the best way to raise potassium levels, if needed. However, if a person isn’t eating enough of the foods that are needed to increase their potassium, then a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement might be necessary. I always suggest that a person first check with their physician if they are planning to increase their potassium level. High doses of potassium supplements can cause disruption in heart rhythms and exacerbate any existing kidney problem.
Just as an interesting fact: To show the increased concern about inadequate potassium intake, the revised Food Label scheduled to be displayed on food packages in coming years will show potassium content per serving.