Potassium: Everything You Need To Know

By:    Published: February 5, 2012

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When we hear the word potassium, most of us think of bananas. But in fact, this mineral is found in a wide variety of foods, including meats, veggies and nuts. Potassium is an essential part of any diet, helping the body to perform some very important functions. In this article, we'll explore the effects that potassium has on the body, which foods contain this mineral and how much of it you should consume daily.

What Does Potassium Do?

Potassium is an essential nutrient that everyone needs in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Although it plays a role in numerous parts of the body, including cells, tissues and organs, there are a few key roles that potassium plays. First and foremost, potassium is critical for proper heart function. By consuming enough potassium, individuals can preserve normal electrical activity within their hearts, leading to fewer heart problems. Studies have found that meeting the recommended dietary intake of potassium daily may also help to lower blood pressure.

Potassium is also important for synthesis of protein from amino acids in the body. Meanwhile, it helps to metabolize carbohydrates, as well, a process that can prevent excessive weight gain. Additionally, potassium is extremely important for growth and development. Throughout your life, and especially during childhood, an adequate amount of potassium is necessary for normal body growth.

Potassium also helps your body to move and develop normally. Potassium is needed for normal skeletal and smoother muscle contractions. Additionally, this mineral is a simple option for improving digestive functions.

Food Sources of Potassium

Although bananas are an excellent source of the mineral, potassium is found in many other foods, as well. Other fruits containing potassium include cantaloupe, kiwi, prunes, apricots and all citrus fruits. Interestingly, dried apricots are richer in potassium than fresh apricots. Vegetables like broccoli, lima beans, potatoes, winter squashes, peas and tomatoes are also great sources of potassium.

All types of meats are excellent potassium sources, including red meat and chicken. Several kinds of fish are also rich in potassium, such as salmon, cod, sardines and flounder. For those who happen to be vegetarians or vegans, soy products and veggie burgers are excellent substitutes for meeting the potassium intake standards. Other sources of potassium include milk, yogurt and several types of nuts.

Side Effects

Side effects for potassium are extremely rare unless an individual takes too much potassium, which results in a condition called hyperkalemia. This can lead to several symptoms, including nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea. In severe cases of hyperkalemia, symptoms like muscle weakness, chest pain, sever stomach pain and slowed or abnormal heart rhythms may result. In most cases, this condition develops in those who are taking potassium supplements. Before changing your daily potassium intake, it's important to consult your physician.

Additionally, there are several medications that may have negative reactions when combined with potassium supplements. These medications include, but are not limited to, heparin, ACE inhibitors, anti-inflammatory drugs, beta-blockers, antacids, insulin and laxatives. If you are taking any of these medications, then ask your doctor before taking any potassium supplements.

Deficiency Symptoms

Because potassium is so readily available in a wide variety of common foods, it is very uncommon for a person to develop a potassium deficiency, which is also known as hypokalemia. However, even a small deficiency can lead to serious health problems. When an individual does not meet their daily recommendation for potassium, it can lead to symptoms like sensitivity to salt and high blood pressure.

A potassium deficiency is more likely to occur in a person with an inadequate diet or in those who suffer from certain diseases. In most cases, however, the deficiency is a result of taking diuretics for the treatment of high blood pressure or heart failure. Other medications which may cause a potassium deficiency include laxatives and steroids, both of which can cause a loss of potassium in the body. Some of the more rare causes for a potassium deficiency include diarrhea, vomiting and illnesses like adrenal gland or kidney disorders. Individuals who take these medications or who have any of these risk factors are encouraged to have their potassium levels checked regularly to prevent any of the serious side effects of hypokalemia.

Daily Dosage Recommendations

The recommended dietary intake for potassium increases according to age. From birth to 6 months, babies should take 0.4 grams of potassium a day, while from 7 to 12 months the recommendation is 0.7 grams a day. From age 1 to 3, 3 grams a day is the recommendation; from age 4 to 8, it is 3.8 grams daily; from age 9 to 13, it is 4.5 grams per day; and from age 14 on, the recommendation is 4.7 per day.

There are a few exceptions to these recommended amounts. For example, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need about 5.1 grams per day. Be sure to consult a doctor before altering your daily potassium intake from the recommended amounts.

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