Potassium as important as sodium for healthy blood pressure

A recent review concludes that consuming adequate potassium levels might be just as important for maintaining a healthy blood pressure.

Potassium, an electrolyte, is necessary for nerves to transport messages and for muscles to contract. It keeps the heart beating and helps to ship nutrients into cells and remove cellular waste. Potassium also assists in the maintenance of healthy bones and reduces the risk of kidney stones.

The author of the current review, Alicia McDonough, Ph.D., professor of cell and neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, sums up her findings: “Decreasing sodium intake is a well-established way to lower blood pressure, but evidence suggests that increasing dietary potassium may have an equally important effect on hypertension.”

McDonough found a number of population studies demonstrating that higher dietary potassium, as rated by urinary excretion or dietary recall, was generally associated with lower blood pressure, regardless of the level of sodium intake.

Other studies looking specifically at potassium supplements gave similar findings.

Beyond population studies, McDonough looked at sodium-potassium research in rodent models to help explain the potential mechanisms behind this interaction. It seems that the body uses sodium to keep a check on potassium blood levels.

“When dietary potassium is high, kidneys excrete more salt and water, which increases potassium excretion. Eating a high potassium diet is like taking a diuretic.”

Alicia McDonough, Ph.D.
Her conclusion, in a nutshell, is that potassium is vital for keeping blood pressure within a normal range. Sodium is still a key player, but simply reducing salt intake alone may not be enough to control hypertension.

McDonough explains that raising potassium levels in the diet will require a conscious effort. As humans evolved, they ate a great deal of fruits, vegetables, roots, beans, and grains, all of which provide an ample supply of potassium. However, sodium was less easy to come by and, therefore, we evolved to crave salt. Our natural desire for salt has since been satisfied by the food industry, who mix more than we require into processed foods.

At the same time, potassium levels in our diets have steadily dropped as we move away from fresh fruit and vegetables.

As McDonough says: “If you eat a typical Western diet, your sodium intake is high, and your potassium intake is low. This significantly increases your chances of developing high blood pressure.”

The authors of the paper explain that, because our bodies evolved to deal with a low sodium, high potassium diet, “consuming a surfeit of dietary potassium” is a “good strategy.”

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