The health-boosting powers of potassium
It may not be a headline-grabber like iron or calcium, but potassium is vital to keeping our bodies in prime condition.
When it comes to thinking about all of the nutrients your body needs, your mind might jump to fibre, protein and calcium.
Commonly associated with bananas, here are key reasons why potassium is a nutrient that shouldn’t be underestimated for your health’s sake.
What does potassium do for the body?
A nutrient commonly referred to as an electrolyte or mineral, general practitioner Dr Tanya Unni says potassium is essential in regulating the balance of fluids in the body.
“It helps prevent swelling or dehydration by regulating water levels in and around cells,” Dr Unni explains.
“Other health benefits of potassium include supporting nerve function, muscle contraction and promoting kidney health by aiding in waste elimination.
“It also helps maintain proper heart and muscle function.”
Studies have suggested high potassium intake is associated with a lower risk of stroke among postmenopausal women, and may help prevent osteoporosis by reducing the excretion of calcium and acid in urine.
Can potassium help reduce blood pressure?
Adequate potassium intake can positively influence blood pressure by counteracting the effects of sodium, Dr Unni says.
“Sodium tends to increase blood pressure by causing the body to retain water while potassium helps balance this by promoting the excretion of excess sodium through the urine,” she explains.
“This interaction between potassium and sodium contributes to maintaining a healthy blood pressure level, reducing the risk of hypertension.”
What food is high in potassium?
The recommended daily intake of potassium for adults is between 2800 and 3800mg.
For a potassium boost, Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman Melanie McGrice recommends bulking up on leafy greens, root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, potatoes and carrots.
“Bananas, of course, everyone knows about, but you can also try snacking on stone fruits, or having a regular cup of hot vegetable soup,” Melanie says.
Other solid sources include canned salmon, yogurt, pumpkin, watermelon, beans and beetroot.
Can you have potassium overload?
Higher potassium levels than needed may result in hyperkalemia, which could cause shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea or vomiting.
This can be a potential risk for people on some medications or those with poor kidney functions who are not able to balance potassium in the body, causing levels to build in the blood, Nutrition Australia dietitian Aloysa Hourigan says.
“If you have kidney problems or high blood pressure then your GP will do regular blood tests to check that your sodium and potassium levels are in order,” Aloysa says.
It is recommended to speak to your GP if you are feeling unwell.
What are the signs of potassium deficiency?
According to Melanie, the likelihood of becoming potassium deficient is quite low unless you have health issues.
“People with inadequate diets will become deficient in a lot of other vitamins and minerals long before potassium becomes an issue,” Melanie says.
Having low potassium levels, or hypokalemia, can be caused by certain medications, excessive sweating, vomiting or diarrhoea.
This may present with symptoms such as muscle weakness, muscle cramps and irregular heart rhythms, and could lead to paralysis or life-threatening heart arrhythmias in severe cases, Dr Unni says.
“If someone suspects low potassium levels, it’s crucial to consult your GP for proper diagnosis and treatment,” Dr Unni adds.
“Dietary adjustments such as incorporating potassium-rich foods may be suggested.
“In more severe cases, supplements under the guidance of a medical professional can help restore potassium levels to a healthy range.”
For more nutrition advice:
- 15 essential nutrition tips every woman should know
- Best ways to power your workout with pre-exercise nutrition
- Fruits that pack the best nutritional punch
Written by Dilvin Yasa. Updated by Melissa Hong, November 2023.