Learn More About Potassium

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What is potassium?

The soft, silvery-white metal known as potassium plays a greater role in human health than perhaps any other mineral except sodium. Consider that one-fourth of the body’s entire energy output goes toward regulating the balance of potassium with sodium, by means of what scientist and doctors refer to as the sodium-potassium pump. This pump keeps sodium levels high in the bloodstream but low in the cell, and potassium levels high in the cell but low in the bloodstream. The differences in concentration between potassium enable cell membranes to function properly, so that the body’s cells can in turn perform their proper roles. Any significant failure in this pumping mechanism would result in serious illness or death.

Potassium helps the kidneys function normally, and plays an important role in cardiovascular functioning, muscle contractions, nerve transmission, in conversion of glucose into glycogen, and muscle building. The body’s production of the hormone aldosterone depends on a steady supply of potassium. This mineral also helps the body maintain control over alkalinity by acting as a pH buffer.

What are food sources of potassium?

Fruits and vegetables contain by far the largest amounts of potassium. Good to excellent sources of this mineral include oranges, bananas, potato (watch the salt!), tomatoes, watermelon, as well as beans, whole-grain cereals, and dried fruits. Abundant levels of potassium may also be found in fresh meats such as fish and also in dairy products.

A good rule of thumb for maintaining a high intake of potassium is to shun canned and boxed foods, since these usually contain too much sodium and too little potassium. In other words, when you shop for groceries stick as much as possible to the edges of the store, where the freshest, least processed foods can be had.

What is potassium used for?

Scientific research strongly suggests that increased potassium intake is associated with lower stroke risk. One eight-year study of 43,000 men indicated that those subjects in the top fifth of dietary potassium intake had a reduction in stroke risk of nearly forty percent compared to those in the lowest fifth of potassium intake.

Four studies reveal major positive associations between high dietary potassium intake and bone mineral density in women and elderly men. It is stronger than the link between bone health and calcium intake. This may seem surprising, but remember that if the intake of potassium falls too low the body uses its stores of calcium salts from bone tissue to neutralize acids and maintain proper pH. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables that have plenty of potassium keeps the net acid content of the diet low, and helps preserve calcium in bones that would otherwise be utilized to maintain alkalinity.

This same pH buffering mechanism may be the reason why one study of 45,000 subjects revealed that a high dietary intake of potassium reduced by half the occurrence of calcium kidney stones.

Scientists such as Richard Passwater point out that inadequate intake of potassiuminterferes with the action of the sodium-potassium pump, which in turn causes the cell membranes to become stiff and brittle, and thereby lead to metabolic problems. This perhaps explains the association between low levels of dietary potassium and conditions such as osteoporosis, asthma, kidney disease, kidney stones, mental decline, stomach cancer, and ulcer, and particularly hypertension.

How is potassium taken?

In ancient diets the amount of potassium consumed was several times greater than is usually the case today, with a conversely lower intake of salt, a fact that probably goes far toward explaining the prevalence of high blood pressure in modern societies. High sodium intake plus low potassium intake equals greatly increased odds of hypertension for many of us.

Recent U.S. dietary surveys indicate that the average daily potassium intake for women is around 2,300 milligrams and 3,100 milligrams for men. But current thinking suggests that to lower risk of stroke, hypertension, osteoporosis, and kidney stones, a good daily intake of potassium should be on the order of 4,700 milligrams, along with a reduced consumption of salt. For most people this means that a concerted effort to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables would be well advised.

Although Federal law prohibits the over-the-counter sale of potassium supplements greater in potency than 99 milligrams, potassium supplements still have a useful role to play in maintaining proper potassium status, especially for athletes, heavy drinkers of alcohol, and others who may have special nutritional needs. Many good forms of supplementary potassium exist, including mineral chelates such as potassium glycinate, potassium gluconate, and potassium aspartate, as well as potassium citrate.

Is potassium safe?

A condition of abnormally elevated serum potassium concentration exists called hyperkalemia which is potentially serious. It can lead to hormonal imbalance, kidney failure, and even abnormal heart rhythm. However, for this to occur usually requires an extremely high intake—18,000 milligrams ingested at one time in individuals not accustomed to a high dietary level of potassium.

Please note that some prescription medications may increase the body’s need for potassium, while others may reduce it. Those on prescription medications should consult with a physician before taking this or any other supplement.


Kenneth Stevens

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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