Potassium is an important mineral and electrolyte needed for all sorts of bodily functions – not just for running a marathon or lifting weights (although electrolytes can be lost in sweat).
It’s important to keep potassium in an optimal range because low (hypokalemia) and high (hyperkalemia) potassium levels can lead to uncomfortable symptoms and even life-threatening complications.
To find out everything you need to know about potassium, we spoke with Dr. David Nazarian, board-certified internal medicine specialist and founder of VitaminMD.net, and Dr. Travis Nemkov, assistant research professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the ‘University. of the Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
What does potassium do in the body?
Nazarian says potassium is an essential mineral that plays various roles in our bodies, such as:
- regulate the electrical activity of the heart
- regulate fluid exchange in cells
- maintain normal blood pressure
- facilitating good nervous functioning
What is the normal range for potassium?
Nazarian says the normal range for potassium is 3.5 to 5.2 mEq/L. (This can be determined via a blood sample.) He explains that low potassium can lead to:
- high blood pressure (which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke)
- abnormal heart rhythms or arrhythmias
- muscle weakness and spasms that can lead to paralysis
- increase the risk of kidney damage as well as gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation and abdominal cramps
Additionally, he says that high potassium levels can lead to:
- life-threatening arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm)
- sudden cardiac death
- shortness of breath
- nausea and vomiting
Nemkov notes that high potassium is “quite rare and is dependent on poor kidney function. High dietary intake is generally not a risk because the excess is removed by the kidneys. In patients with renal insufficiency advanced kidney disease, potassium can build up in the blood, which is a medical emergency.They may need a procedure called dialysis to remove the excess potassium.
How much potassium do I need per day?
Nazarian says, “The recommended amount of potassium you should take depends on your age. The approximate amount of potassium per day for an adult male is 3400 mg and for an adult female 2600 mg.
Which food contains the most potassium?
If your first thought was bananas, you’re close! Bananas are an excellent source of potassium, with around 422 mg per banana. However, according to a list compiled by the Mayo Clinic, acorn squash comes out on top, with about 896 mg of potassium per cup (cooked).
Nazarian and Nemkov say these foods contain good amounts of potassium:
- Leafy greens
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Dried fruits like apricots, prunes and raisins
Electrolyte drinks can also help replenish electrolytes that may be lost through sweating or illness. Some of these products may contain a lot of sugar, which may be okay if you’re exercising vigorously, but may not be the best if you’re just hanging out. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about how to increase your potassium intake.
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