What Does Potassium Do to Your Body?

Potassium is more than just a mineral. It is actually essential to various metabolic and body processes. In this article, we will let you know what potassium is. We’ll also discuss some potassium-rich foods and everything else you need to know.

Health Functions

It is important to learn what potassium does to your body. However, we must first know exactly what this nutrient is. Potassium is a mineral that we obtain through food. It helps the body in various ways. In particular, it is essential in keeping the fluid balance in your body. It also helps the heart work properly.  

Potassium, along with sodium, is an electrolyte. When potassium levels are normal, this mineral is present in all body tissues. It is part of normal cell function. This is due to its central role in maintaining cellular fluid volume. It also helps regulate the gradients (difference in concentrations) that work at the cell membrane level.

Below are some of the most important functions that potassium carries out in your body:

 

Regulates Fluid Balance 

You might know that the body is made up of 60% water. This is mostly found in the intracellular fluid (ICF). The rest of the fluid is in the extracellular fluid (ECF). That means that it is outside of the cells, such as blood and spinal fluid.

However, the amount of water in the ICF and ECF varies depending on electrolytes. In particular, it is dependent on the amount of potassium and sodium. Normally, the amount of fluid is the same in the ICF and ECF. This is because there is an equal number of electrolytes in both spaces.

When something happens, electrolytes will rush in the space out of balance. This is done to help correct the imbalance. Otherwise, the cells can shrink or swell up.

It is important to keep the right amount of potassium. Your body automatically adjusts to match the amount consumed to the one lost. This is done mainly so through the kidneys absorbing or excreting the mineral.

 

Helps Nerve Signaling 

The nervous system is in charge of sending signals between your brain and the rest of the body. These are the messages that take care of everything. It includes everything from breathing, to moving, to sleeping.

These nerve impulses happen thanks to the movement of sodium ions into cells and potassium ions out of cells. This change in ions activates the nerve impulses. This is done by changing the voltage of each cell. Potassium levels can greatly affect how well cell signaling and nerve impulses can work.

 

Muscle and Heart Contractions 

Just like the nervous system, when there is an imbalance in your potassium levels, your body might not be able to contract muscles correctly, including the heart. The movement of potassium out of cells helps the heart and muscles contract properly.

When blood potassium is too high, your heart may beat irregularly or, in extreme cases, be unable to move. Low potassium levels, on the other hand, lead to the rapid fluttering of the heart. Both conditions can be dangerous.

Disease Risk Reduction

Potassium is such an essential mineral in the body. It is also an important part of bodily processes. Therefore, there is some advantage to consuming it in your diet. 

You will likely see some health benefits when maintaining normal potassium levels. Below are some disease risk reduction properties of potassium.

 

Reduces High Blood Pressure 

Hypertension is common these days. It can also be a risk factor for heart attacks, heart disease, and stroke. It affects almost a third of Americans.

Throughout the scientific literature, potassium is a factor in the prevention of hypertension. Consuming normal potassium levels can help protect against high blood pressure. This is best when combined with low sodium levels.

If an individual already has hypertension, one can help manage their blood pressure by increasing the potassium content of their meals.  

 

Help Prevent Osteoporosis 

Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones. When this happens, the bones lose density and become extremely fragile. It happens mostly in older adults. However, many individuals are at risk. This is particularly true for those that consume low calcium in their diets.

However, there is evidence to show that potassium-rich foods can help prevent osteoporosis. Consuming potassium can help prevent losing calcium through urine.


Blood Glucose Control 

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is a growing concern among individuals of every age group. In fact, it already affects almost 12% of Americans. Potassium is required for insulin secretion. Therefore, regular-to-high levels of potassium in the diet can help manage glucose levels.

Increasing potassium intake and consuming a well-balanced diet can help improve insulin sensitivity.

 

Reduced Risk of Kidney Stones 

Kidney stones occur when waste materials and other nutrients accumulate in concentrated urine. One of the most common materials in kidney stones is calcium. Still, several studies show that potassium can lower calcium levels in urine. This can eventually help prevent kidney stones.

When you have low potassium levels, the calcium reabsorption system in the kidneys does not work well. Because of this, more calcium is excreted in the urine. Supplementing potassium or consuming potassium-rich foods can help.

Groups at Risk

Hypokalemia, or low potassium, is defined as serum levels below 3.6 mmol/L. It is rare in healthy individuals. However, some individuals are more at risk. Most causes of hypokalemia are due to electrolyte disturbances due to fluid losses.

Individuals at risk for hypokalemia include those that have excess excretion of potassium in the urine. Some of the causes include using diuretic drugs, endocrine illnesses, like primary hyperaldosteronism, kidney disorders, and genetic syndromes of the kidneys.

Others at risk are individuals who have diarrhea or vomiting, such as inflammatory bowel disease, chronic laxative usage, intestinal obstructions, and infections.

Finally, if someone has an eating disorder or pica, they will likely not consume enough foods that contain potassium.

 

What are the signs of a potassium deficiency? 

Hypokalemia has the following signs and symptoms:

  • Cramping
  • Arrhythmias or tachycardia
  • Constipation
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Paralysis
  • Heart failure

Hyperkalemia, or high potassium, is defined as serum levels above 5.0 mEq/L to 5.5 mEq/L. This syndrome is usually asymptomatic. Symptoms often show up when levels are higher than 6 mEq/L.

Individuals at risk for hyperkalemia include those with a high potassium diet, decreased renal excretion due to kidney damage, and diabetes.

Hyperkalemia has the following signs and symptoms:

  • Arrhythmias
  • Muscle weakness
  • Paralysis

Intake Recommendations

The United States recommends consuming at least 4.7 milligrams of potassium per day. Some individuals should consume more. These include athletes, high-risk groups, and black individuals at risk for salt sensitivities.

 

How can I raise my potassium levels quickly? 

Some  food sources to include in your high potassium food list are:

  • Dry apricots
  • Potatoes
  • Cooked spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • White beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Leafy greens
  • Prunes
  • Carrots
  • Milk or dairy
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Whole-wheat rice

It is important to note that some individuals must follow a low-potassium diet. This may be due to chronic kidney disease or other health conditions.

 

Dates and Potassium 

Dates contain about 696 mg/100g of potassium. You can find dates with concentrations at high as 0.9%. The seeds of dates can have as much as 0.5%. Dates are high in potassium. However, it is also not in excess. Therefore,  dates can be a good source for everyone.

The fact is that dates are also high in other nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory components. These include selenium, zinc, and magnesium. It also has a lot of copper and fiber. All of these make them extremely healthy snacks.

Conclusion

Now you know exactly what potassium does to your body. We also know how important it is to have a good daily intake of this mineral. We recommend including foods with potassium in your diet. Be sure to replenish levels when sick or dehydrated. Potassium-rich foods like dates, potatoes, beans, and more can help keep your body healthy.

Written by:
Juliana Tamayo, MS
Nutrition and Dietetics
Reviewed by:
Registered Dietitian

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