This essential mineral, an electrolyte, plays a critical role in the body's regulation of water. Sweat loss during intense exercise is a common cause of deficiency, which may result in symptoms ranging from fatigue to severe muscle cramping.
Other names for Potassium
Where to find Potassium
Potassium is found abundantly in a number of foods, including leafy green vegetables, broccoli, peas, tomatoes, and potatoes; oranges and other citrus fruits, bananas, apples, avocados, and raisins; whole grains, wheat germ, and nuts; and fish like salmon and snapper.
Note Most potassium is lost when processing or canning foods.
Popup: Foods highest in Potassium
The Daily Value for Potassium is 3500 mg.
More about Potassium
As arguably the most important electrolyte, potassium plays a critical role in regulating the water balance in our bodies. Given that our bodies are 70% water, this function is of significant importance. Potassium also plays a role in the regulation of nerve function, blood pressure, and muscular contractions.
A perfect diet, rich in leafy greens, may supply our bodies with ample potassium — between two and six grams per day. The challenge is, in the real world, few of us eat a perfect diet. In fact, the average American diet is believed to more likely supply between 800 and 1,500 mg. Add to this the fact that intense training and sweating during heavy workouts can lead to a significant loss of potassium. The result: a deficiency.
Deficiency symptoms and causes
Potassium deficiency can have some subtle but debilitating effects, such as mild to moderate fatigue and severe cramping during intense activity/exercise. Low levels may also impair glucose metabolism and lead to elevated blood sugar.
More pronounced symptoms of long-term deficiency include dry skin, acne, chills, cognitive impairment, constipation, depression, poor reflexes, fluid retention (take a deep breath), heartbeat fluctuations, nervousness, insatiable thirst, insomnia, weakness, headaches, mental confusion, and anti-social behavior — who would have friends with all this going on?! Clearly, this a good list of symptoms to avoid.
Other causes of deficiency include diuretic and laxative use, tobacco use, alcohol and caffeine consumption, prolonged diarrhea or vomiting, high sugar intake, and various kidney disorders. And, both mental and physical stress may cause a deficiency of potassium.
How it works
Potassium works intricately with sodium (also an electrolyte). The balance of sodium and potassium is particularly important to the function of muscle and nerve impulses. When your muscles contract, potassium exits the cell and sodium enters, creating a change in the electrical charge in the cell. This is called the "sodium-potassium pump."
For optimal health, our potassium-to-sodium ratio should be five to one or better. Most Americans, however, have a ratio of less than one to two, which can result in high blood pressure and an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, in addition to all the negative effects previously mentioned.
The leading cause of this pathetic ratio is the typical Americans' diet — it's far too high in sodium. While this is a concern and we should limit sodium intake, supplementation with potassium may help bring our bodies back to a more balanced state, leading to improved health.
For medicinal purposes, potassium is prescribed by doctors more than any other mineral because the important benefits of potassium are so widely recognized. One continuing concern is that because high blood pressure is often treated with diuretics, and diuretics lead to a greater risk of a potassium deficiency, in the treatment of one complication, another is aggravated. Perhaps that's why many nutritionists recommend patients take some control and supplement with potassium. (Of course, it's always wise to talk with your doctor if other complications exist, but be aware of your own need for potassium.)
Whether you're a hard-training athlete, crave salty food, or have other lifestyle choices that may make you at greater risk, potassium is an easily obtainable, important electrolyte that can help keep your body in balance.