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Potassium Makes Sodium Your Friend
by Barbara Minton
(The Best Years in Life) Nature is all about balance. The human body reflects this principle in every small aspect as well as in its main orchestration, the constant search for homeostasis. Yet in Western medicine this theme of balance is often overlooked, and each body part or system is viewed in isolation. This approach produces some strange conclusions, one of which is that sodium is your enemy. In fact, sodium is necessary to sustain life and produce energy. But sodium must be balanced with potassium.
The sodium-potassium connection
Sodium and potassium are both essential dietary minerals and electrolytes, meaning they dissociate into ions (charged particles) in solution, making them capable of conducting electricity. Normal body functioning depends on the right regulation of sodium and potassium both inside and outside of cells.
Sodium is the principal ion in the fluid surrounding cells, while potassium is the principal ion in the fluid inside of cells. Sodium concentrations are more than ten times lower inside than outside cells, while potassium concentrations are about thirty times higher inside than outside cells. The concentration differences between potassium and sodium across cell membranes create an electrochemical gradient known as the membrane potential. A large portion of the energy in the body is dedicated to maintaining desirable sodium/potassium concentration gradients, underscoring the importance of the balance between sodium and potassium in sustaining life. Tight control of cell membrane potential is critical for heart function, as well as nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction.
In Western industrialized countries, the daily intake of sodium chloride (salt) is about three times higher than the daily intake of potassium. This means that the balance or equilibrium so necessary for these minerals is not achievable through the typical low-potassium dietary choices of Westerners. In prehistoric cultures and the few remaining primitive cultures, salt intake is about seven times lower than potassium intake. Studies are showing that the relative imbalance of this ratio in the Western world is positively correlated with hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.
Studies support the need for a balanced relationship between sodium and potassium
In a report from the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, published in the journal Kidney International, researchers noted that chronic low potassium levels have been associated with a variety of lung disorders, kidney disease, and hypertension in both adults and children. However, the effects of potassium depletion on the rapidly growing infant have not been well studied.
They designed their study to determine the effects of severe chronic dietary potassium depletion on blood pressure and kidney structural changes. Infant rats were fed either a control or a potassium deficient diet for 14 to 21 days. At the end of the period, blood pressure and renal activity was assessed. Then the remaining rats in each group were switched to a high salt diet or were continued on their respective control or potassium deficient diets for an additional six days.
Results indicated that the potassium depleted animals had significant growth retardation, kidney damage and lung injury. By week 2, potassium depleted rats had higher systolic blood pressure than control rats.
The researchers concluded that dietary potassium deficiency per se increased blood pressure in young rats, and induced salt sensitivity that may be involved in at least two different pathogenic pathways.
In another study, controlled trials including 2,609 people assessed the effects of increased potassium intake on high blood pressure. Increased potassium intake resulted in small but significant blood pressure reductions in people with normal blood pressure, and larger reductions in people with hypertension. The blood pressure lowering effect was more pronounced in individuals with higher salt intakes.
A clinical trial involving 150 Chinese men and women with mild hypertension found that moderate supplementation of potassium resulted in a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure compared to controls. Researchers noted that the routine diets eaten by the participants were high in sodium and low in potassium.
A study from New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell Medical Center reported in Hypertension investigated the role of intracellular potassium and other ions in hypertension and diabetes. They concluded that potassium depletion is a common feature of essential hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
This growing body of research clearly shows that sodium is only one side of a two-sided equation. It is as necessary to body functioning as is potassium, but must be in balance with potassium to be effective. Cutting out sodium from the diet fails to acknowledge the necessary role sodium plays, and the need to raise potassium consumption until both minerals are balanced and equilibrium is reached in the fluid inside and outside of the cells.
Potassium and stroke
Several epidemiological studies have found that increased potassium intake is associated with decreased risk of stroke. A prospective study of 43,000 men found that men in the top fifteenth of dietary potassium intake were only 62% as likely to have a stroke as those in the lowest fifteenth of potassium intake. This inverse association was also seen in men with hypertension.
A prospective study of 5,600 men and women older than 65 years found that low potassium intake was associated with significantly increased incidence of stoke.
Potassium and osteoporosis
Cross sectional studies have reported significant positive associations between dietary potassium intake and bone mineral density in a wide age range of both pre-menopausal and postmenopausal women, and elderly men. Bone mineral density was significantly and positively associated with higher levels of potassium intake.
Potassium rich foods such as fruits and vegetables are also rich in precursors of bicarbonate ions, which buffer acids in the body. Our Western diet tends to be highly acidic. When the quantity of bicarbonate ion intake is insufficient to maintain normal pH, the body will mobilize alkalinizing minerals from bone to neutralize acids consumed in the diet and generated by metabolism. Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables reduces the net acid content of the diet and preserves calcium and other minerals in the bones.
A study of 18 postmenopausal women found that potassium supplementation decreased urinary acid and calcium excretion, resulting in increased biomarkers of bone formation and decreased biomarkers of bone re-absorption. Studies have found that supplementing with potassium citrate decreased urinary acid excretion and biomarkers of bone re-absorption in postmenopausal women and ameliorated the effects of a high-salt diet on bone metabolism. Minerals are synergistic and are better absorbed and used when taken together.
Potassium and kidney stones
Increased dietary potassium intake has been found to decrease urinary calcium excretion, a component in the development of kidney stones. Potassium deprivation has been found to increase urinary calcium excretion. A prospective study of more than 45,000 men followed for years found that those with high potassium intake were only half as likely to develop kidney stones as men whose intake was low. In a similar study involving women, those ingesting the highest amounts of potassium were found to be 65% less likely to develop kidney stones.
More actions of potassium in the body
Potassium regulates the beating of your heart. If you experience irregular heart beats, known as arrhythmias, your potassium levels may be low. Potassium also controls muscle functioning. It is the mineral that directs the transfer of nutrients through the cell membranes, a function that decreases with aging, accounting for the circulatory damage, lethargy and weakness of old people.
Other signs of potassium deficiency
Warning symptoms of potassium deficiency include abnormally dry skin, acne, chills, cognitive impairment, constipation, depression, diarrhea, diminished reflexes, edema, nervousness, excessive thirst, glucose intolerance, growth impairment, hypoglycemia, high cholesterol levels, insomnia, low blood pressure, muscular fatigue, headaches, salt retention and hypersensitivity to salt, and respiratory distress.
Use of diuretics or laxatives lowers potassium levels. Caffeine, tobacco and heavy sugar consumption reduce potassium absorption. Mental and physical stress can also lead to low potassium levels.
Sources of potassium
High amounts of potassium are found in potatoes, plums, prunes, raisins, bananas, tomatoes and tomato juice, orange juice, artichokes, lima beans, acorn squash, spinach, nuts and seeds, apricots, avocado and garlic. Other foods with substantial amounts of potassium are fish, meat, poultry, whole grains, yogurt, bee pollen, spirulina and chlorella.
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