Potassium – A Valuable Mineral for Health

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

February 25, 2019

Potassium – A Valuable Mineral for Health
The human body depends on a wide variety of nutrients to function. Inside each cell, millions of little pumps and channels use electrolytes like potassium and sodium to function. Our dietary intake and nutritional balance affect the most minute energy function in the body. Bananas and potatoes are often brought up as a source of good potassium. Eating a banana per day does indeed provide a helpful source of potassium, but is it enough?

With various contemporary diets and eating patterns that lack potassium intake or medications that strip potassium out, inadequate potassium has become a real concern. Your diet is the primary resource for this mineral, but many people fail to get enough potassium to fulfill their body’s needs. Without enough potassium, simple yet profound adverse changes occur with health and function.


A classic nutrition reference book published over 30 years ago, Nutritional Influences on Illness by Melvyn R. Werbach, MD offers considerable insight into potassium effects from that time. Its list of symptoms associated with insufficient dietary potassium is lengthy and affects the whole body.

Concerns included acne, cognitive impairment, constipation, depression, edema, fatigue, blood sugar problems, growth impairment, elevated cholesterol, slow reflexes, low and high blood pressure, insomnia, muscle weakness, nervousness, excessive thirst, protein in the urine, breathing distress, salt retention, slow, irregular heart beat, and very dry, scaly skin.

Potassium also affects temperature regulation, heat intolerance, salt sensitivity, and even the menstrual cycle. Since this book was published, research has found that there is much more to potassium than this already long list of concerns. As knowledge continues to increase, we find that potassium deeply impacts core functions of human health.

Past and Present Consumption

The average consumption of potassium in today’s Western diet is less than 2000 mg per day. The Institute of Medicine recommendation for healthy adults is 4700 mg/day. Generations before us consumed much higher amounts of potassium with historical intake about twice the amount of the current RDA or about 9000 mg/day.

Diets low in fruits and vegetables, high sodium, fast foods or calorie rich/nutrient poor foods are main reasons for today’s insufficient intake. At least 10-12 servings of fruits and vegetables per day are needed to offset the dietary deficit and high processed sodium intake.

Given the popularity of diets like the Whole 30 and others that focus on much higher intake of vegetables to the exclusion of other things, I suspect part of the benefit for some individuals may simply be restoration of potassium levels in the body. Those who consume the Standard American Diet and then shift their diet to higher intake of potassium rich foods may be reaping the benefits of potassium’s many health benefits.

Why Do We Need Potassium?

Scientists have discovered remarkable functions of potassium in the body in the last several decades. Potassium is an electrolyte necessary to help our cells maintain an electrical charge and energy. It manages fluids inside cells as it attracts water and nutrients into cells. Potassium keeps the pH in our tissues alkaline.

Red blood cells contain at least 15-20 times more potassium compared to the blood stream. It is the primary electrolyte or positively charged ion located inside of cells. The concentration of potassium is about 30 times higher inside healthy cells than on the outside. Sodium, on the other hand, is primarily on the outside of cells at about 10 times the concentration compared to the inside of cells. Sodium and potassium counter-balance each other. They work together via a pump called the sodium-potassium pump.

Sodium-Potassium Pump

The sodium-potassium pump functions like a precisely balanced teeter-totter which moves sodium and potassium through cell membranes in and out of every single cell in the body. Muscles and nerves use this pump when using ATP or energy. When ATP is used up, the mechanism pumps three sodium ions out of the cell and two potassium ions into the cell. Your entire body, but especially muscles, nerves, and kidneys rely on the sodium-potassium pump and potassium ion channels.

Scientists have estimated that up to 40 percent of the body’s energy is shunted towards the needs of the sodium-potassium pump. The pump is constantly working in all cells of the body like a battery helping cells, nerves, and muscles work together. Its function keeps fluid balance regulated in and out of cells. This process and balance also affects how other electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphate) work.

Potassium Ion Channels

Along with the sodium-potassium ATP pump, there are potassium ion channels within cell membranes. These channels allow potassium molecules or ions to pass, but discriminately blocks sodium. It is a very tightly regulated process. Potassium ion channels allow us to move our muscles, are essential for electrical nerve signals, energy production, mitochondria function and other molecular functions. The flow and activity of these pumps and channels literally allows us to move, function, breathe, think, and do.

Profound Impact

As research has progressed, we find out just how profound these mechanisms are in the body. For example, kidney function is critically dependent upon the function and healthy balance of these pumps and channels to regulate toxins and waste, fluids, blood sugar, proteins, and electrolytes, and blood pH. It is estimated that there are up to 50 million sodium-potassium pumps per cell in the (distal convoluted tubule) kidneys.

The brain uses the sodium-potassium pump for its daily work. Scientists estimate that the brain’s gray matter uses nearly 75 percent of its total energy with sodium-potassium pump function. In addition, the sodium-potassium pump is essential for sperm motilitythyroid and parathyroid function and other activities.

Breakdown of Pump and Channels

As potassium ion channels break down or the sodium-potassium pump become dysfunctional, it leads to loss of health and adverse changes. Researchers have found that if the diet lacks potassium, then muscle stores of potassium are used to keep the heart’s potassium level and the sodium-potassium pump intact. It becomes an issue of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

As potassium reserves are depleted, it manifests in other ways. Long-term imbalances with the sodium-potassium pump and potassium ion channel dysfunction or channelopathies have been linked with numerous concerns affecting nerves/brain, muscles, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, lungs, and gut. It manifests as neurodegeneration, diabetes, high blood pressure, gut motility and functional bowel disorders, asthma and other lung disorders, mitochondrial dysfunction, heart disorders, obesity, and several cancers (glioblastoma, non-small cell lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, colorectal cancer, and bladder cancer).

Oxidative damage is another source of stress to the sodium-potassium pump Oxidative injury to the pumps have been linked with aging, obesity, mood disorders, concussions/brain injury, migraines, learning and memory, nerve irritation, fatigue problems, blood sugar dysregulation, seizure disorders and likely many other concerns.

If there is too much sodium and not enough potassium, then fluids move the wrong direction in and out of cells. It’s like having water meant for inside a bathtub run out all over the bathroom floor – it makes a mess, things don’t work the way they should, and the rest of the body gets stressed.

Other Contributors to Potassium Deficiency

Several other things affect potassium levels in the body in addition to the diet. Medications can strip out potassium from the body. Some diuretics or water pills, laxatives, bicarbonates, sulfonamide antibiotics (Septra, Bactrim), steroids, and dozens upon dozens other medications deplete potassium. (Check your drug information sheet or with your pharmacist). Vomiting, diarrhea, binge eating disorders, overactive adrenal glands, excess or prolonged fasting, high protein diets, protein fasts, ketogenic diets without vegetable and fruit intake, and other imbalanced fad diets can deplete potassium.

Optimal Lab Value

Optimal blood levels for potassium are 4.0-4.6. When potassium starts to trend below 4.0, it signifies that potassium storage levels are running low. By the time, potassium lab values are below reference range, significant stress has been put on the pumps and ion channels especially when sodium intake is high.

Potassium Rich Foods and Supplementation

Fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, and also contain antioxidants and other minerals necessary for protection and function of the pumps and ion channels. Some of the richest potassium sources of foods per standard serving includes baked potato with skin (941 mg), prune juice, carrot juice, passion fruit juice, tomato paste, puree and juice, beet greens, adzuki beans, white beans, plain nonfat and low-fat yogurt, baked sweet potato with skin, wild caught cooked salmon, clams, pomegranate juice, and orange juice. These foods contain between 500- 900 mg of potassium per standard serving. (Note that several of these foods are juices which means high sugar intake. Other choices may be better.) A medium size banana contains about 400 mg of potassium. Other good choices include avocado, watermelon, spinach, and peaches. Coconut water provides a nice refreshing boost too.

Potassium supplements are available for those who want extra support. Wellness Resources offers potassium combined with taurine and malate. This unique combination helps potassium truly get inside of cells. Taurine and malate are used by cell membranes, nerves, muscles, and mitochondria. For stressed out cells, it is a valuable combination. Potassium also works together with magnesium. If magnesium is inadequate, this also affects potassium and vice versa.

To determine if you are getting enough potassium, write down your food intake for 3 days and calculate how much potassium you have consumed. A diet diary provides a lot of insight into patterns. It also helps us be accountable to ourselves.

If you find that you had on average less than 2000 mg of potassium intake per day, then make it an absolute critical priority to truly change. If you achieved the RDA intake of 4700 mg, then keep up the good work. Consider even higher amounts as ancestral heritage shows that diets had twice the intake of the RDA.

If you have any of the competing concerns listed above, then you must be even more diligent about change and replenishment. Teach kids to like the taste of vegetables and other healthy foods early on. If you don’t like the taste of fruits and vegetables, give yourself time. It takes about three weeks for the body to adjust to changes in taste and preferences. Keep working at it.

Also note that there are some medical conditions that require low potassium intake. Work with your medical provider to understand your needs.

If you caught the statistic listed above, i.e. 50 million sodium-potassium pumps per cell in the kidney and how much of the brain and body’s energy is devoted to the sodium-potassium pump and potassium ion channels, it should help propel the understanding of just how vastly important and integral potassium balance is to the body. We must supply potassium to the body in adequate amounts. As I have been reading and learning more about potassium, I think I need more in my diet. How about you?

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