Potassium is a simple mineral with a crucial job: helping your heart beat. A hundred thousand times a day, potassium helps trigger your heart’s squeeze of blood through your body.
If you have high blood pressure, heart failure, or heart rhythm problems, getting enough potassium is especially important. Although potassium and cholesterol aren’t directly related, eating a potassium-rich diet just might lower your cholesterol, too.
Potassium: Abundant and Invisible
Potassium exists in abundance in soil and seawater. A healthy amount of potassium is essential to all plant and animal life. A critical electrolyte, potassium allows our muscles to move, our nerves to fire, and our kidneys to filter blood. The right balance of potassium literally allows the heart to beat.
Most people get plenty of potassium just by eating a normal diet. The main source of potassium in our food is fruits and vegetables. Dairy products, whole grains, meat, and fish also provide potassium.
Excellent sources of potassium include:
Fresh fruits (bananas, oranges, and strawberries)
Dried fruits (raisins, apricots, prunes, and dates)
Beans and peas
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the best way to get enough potassium. You’ll also get the other benefits of a high fruits-and-veggies diet. Those include:
Reduction of heart disease risk
Lower cancer risk
Lower risk for obesity
Potassium and Your Heart
In healthy amounts, potassium is a heart-friendly mineral. Potassium doesn’t treat or prevent heart disease, but studies have shown that getting enough potassium benefits the heart in several important ways.
Potassium and High Blood Pressure
In one major study of people with high blood pressure, taking potassium supplements reduced systolic blood pressure (the top number) by about 8 points.
But you don’t have to pop potassium pills to get the heart-healthy benefits. A diet high in fruits and vegetables (good sources of potassium) and fat-free or low-fat dairy foods can help lower systolic blood pressure by more than 10 points in people with hypertension.
Potassium and High Cholesterol
A direct link between potassium and cholesterol hasn’t been established. But it’s interesting that many diets proven to lower cholesterol are also high in potassium.
If you have abnormal cholesterol levels, you’re at higher than average risk for heart disease. The same goes for anyone with any of the other risk factors for atherosclerosis:
High blood pressure
Age over 55 for men or 65 for women
Lack of exercise
Taking potassium isn’t known to reduce the risk of heart attacks. But by making sure you’re taking in enough potassium, you’ll probably end up eating more fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet high in fruits and veggies and low in saturated fat and cholesterol can help cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Potassium and Abnormal Heart Rhythms (arrhythmias)
For people with abnormal heart rhythms, potassium may be even more important. Potassium is hiding inside every heartbeat. Each heart muscle needs just the right potassium balance in order to contract in a coordinated fashion.
People who’ve had abnormal heart rhythms -- arrhythmias or dysrhythmias -- are at risk for an uncoordinated heart rhythm. Some abnormal heart rhythms include:
People with a history of arrhythmias should see a doctor on a regular basis. A periodic potassium check might be part of your routine doctor’s visits.
Potassium and Heart Failure
For many people with heart failure (also called congestive heart failure), getting enough potassium is especially important. Some diuretics -- water pills -- for heart failure can cause you to lose potassium in the urine. Potassium supplements or a potassium-rich diet can put it back. Ask your doctor before starting a potassium supplement on your own, because it may not be necessary.
Potassium: How Much Is Necessary?
When it comes to potassium, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Healthy people shouldn’t have any problems from eating a high-potassium diet or taking potassium supplements as directed. But people with kidney problems or certain other conditions such as the following need to be cautious about potassium intake:
Acute renal failure
Chronic kidney disease or dialysis dependence
Use of medications that increase potassium levels, including
spironolactone (Aldactone), triamterene, trimethoprim/
sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim), and some ACE inhbitors
How much potassium should you be eating?
The easiest thing to do is to increase the amount of high-potassium fruits and vegetables in your diet. You’ll be getting plenty of potassium --- with no calculator required.
If you really feel like counting, the USDA recommends 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day. You can find the potassium content in foods on their package labels or from the USDA Web site: www.nal.usda.gov.