November 19 2021
Vitamin Spotlight: Potassium
Today we're going to go deep on potassium - why it's important for athletes, additional benefits, where to get it, and how much is too much.
Potassium, also known as Vitamin K, is an essential nutrient for our bodies to function well and for us to feel our best. But why? What does it actually effect? What happens if we don’t get enough of it? It’s one thing to know that hypothetically a vitamin is important for us, but it’s another thing to truly understand the ins and outs of what we are putting into our bodies and why.
Athletes are tasked with the unique challenge of pushing their bodies to the limit, and many find ways to continue challenging their physical capabilities throughout their whole life. Longevity and the ability to quickly recover from stresses can be the difference between hitting that next milestone or being out with an injury, and nutrition plays a vital part in this. Today, we’re here today to discuss all things Potassium.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR ATHLETES?
If you are seeking optimal performance, make sure you are getting enough potassium.
One little known fact is that Potassium is the third most abundant mineral in the body. As you can imagine, anything present at this capacity within ourselves probably has a pretty important job. Potassium is not only key to maintaining fluid and electrolyte balances within our systems, but it is vital for heart, kidney, brain, and muscle health.
Potassium interacts frequently with other minerals within the body, one of the most common being sodium. Sodium-potassium pumps within our biochemical make-up help support cellular function and ensure our cells are making the best use of the nutrients available. This is especially important for athletes because potassium is involved in how carbohydrates are stored and used as energy to fuel the muscles, along with muscle coordination and nerve regulation. Some of the top benefits of Potassium for athletes include:
ALLEVIATING OR PREVENTING CRAMPS
If you’ve been involved in athletics for a while, you’ve likely experienced a cramp—and just how frustrating they can be. One second you’re running around the soccer field dribbling through the other team’s players, and the next you’re motioning for the coach to sub you out. This is one area where Potassium is especially important. At some point, your coach or physio probably has given you the advice “go eat a banana” to help alleviate and prevent additional cramps. While this may have seemed strange to you at the time, it is actually scientifically-backed advice.
Muscle cramps are caused by contractions of the muscles, often appearing out of the blue and feeling uncontrollable. Potassium plays a vital role in relaying signals from the brain to stimulate contractions or end contractions. So when you have low levels of potassium, your body is less able to relay signals from your brain to stop muscle contractions. Because of this, low levels of potassium can result in more frequent and longer cramps. In order to prevent this, athletes should be sure to include lots of potassium-rich foods or supplements into their diets, which we will go into later in this article.
IMPROVES MUSCLE CONTROL AND COORDINATION
As mentioned earlier in this article, potassium often links up with sodium to form sodium-potassium pumps within the body. When sodium ions move out of cells and potassium ions move into cells, nerve impulses are created. These nerve impulses help regulate everything from reflexes to heartbeats to muscle movements. When you don’t have enough potassium, your body isn’t able to create or control these nerve impulses and is unable to function optimally.
In this way, Potassium is responsible for quick reflexes and muscle control over minute movements. Having adequate Potassium increases muscle coordination, which is incredibly important for athletes. Having the ability to respond and act quickly, as well as have sharp and specific body movements, is vital for achieving optimal performance.
Potassium helps flush excess water and waste from your cells. High potassium levels do this by increasing urine production and lowering levels of sodium in the body, as high sodium levels are typically associated with your body holding on to excess water. By reducing water retention, you can lessen the feeling and frequency of being bloated and you body will stay hydrated for longer.
Athletes need to be able to move quickly and agilely without feeling sluggish and uncomfortable. Having low levels of potassium makes it more difficult for the body to stay hydrated which can increase the frequency of feeling lightheaded or overheated in athletes.
Potassium is important for overall health in addition to athletic performance
Striving for peak athletic performance goes beyond coordination and cramping and involves total body health. When your body is functioning well, you’re able to look, feel, and move your best. This will help you recover from tough workouts more quickly and be able to listen to your body with more accuracy for what types of nutrients and recovery you need. Some benefits of Potassium for general health include:
LOWERING BLOOD PRESSURE
Research has shown that potassium-rich diets have a significant effect on lowering blood pressure when compared to potassium-poor diets. For example, in the DASH trial (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), three diets were compared for their effect on participants’ blood pressures. A standard American diet (about 1700mg of Potassium per day), a produce-rich diet (about 4100mg of Potassium per day), and a combination diet (about 4100mg of Potassium per day plus dairy products and red meat) were compared in the trial. The results saw that people with normal blood pressure who ate the produce-rich diet had an average drop of 2.8mg Hg in systolic blood pressure and 1.1mg Hg in diastolic blood pressure more than those who ate a standard American diet. The combination diet had an average blood pressure drop of 5.5mg Hg for systolic blood pressure and 3.0mg Hg for diastolic blood pressure more than those eating the standard diet. The results were even more extreme for participants with high blood pressure at the start.
IMPROVES HEART HEALTH
Potassium, especially when combined with sodium, plays an important role in heart health and regulating a healthy heartbeat. In fact, heart rhythm irregularities have commonly been shown to be associated with irregular potassium levels, and small deviations in your body’s potassium levels can have an effect on your risk for heart problems. Potassium helps trigger the mechanism that helps your heart contract and pump blood throughout the body, keeping healthy circulation and a healthy heartbeat.
REDUCING THE RISK OF STROKES
Linked to improved heart health is the reduced risk of strokes. Many studies have found an association between higher potassium levels and a lower risk of strokes, especially ischemic strokes. The Journal of the American Health Association conducted a study further providing evidence for this benefit, finding that consuming 3500mg of Potassium per day or more was associated with a lower risk of having a stroke in participants.
HELPING WITH OSTEOPOROSIS
Many foods high in potassium include two naturally occurring potassium salts called potassium citrate and potassium bicarbonate. These two salts have been shown to improve bone density and reduce the likelihood of developing osteoporosis. One way this has been shown was through a study that had participants consume high levels of potassium salts. What they found from this study was that those with high consumption of these salts had lower excretion of acid and calcium through urine. This means that participants with potassium-salt rich diets were losing less minerals from their bones (read: reduced risk of osteoporosis) and reabsorbing less acid (read: even more reduced risk of osteoporosis).
How do we get enough?
There are many foods that naturally contain Potassium, one of the most recognized being bananas. Typically, fruits and vegetables have high levels of potassium, along with containing many other important vitamins and minerals. Beans and fish are also a great option to increase potassium intake. Some great choices to up your potassium levels are:• Bananas • Pomegranates • Oranges • Cantaloupe • Apricots • Avocados • Potatoes (sweet or regular) • Spinach (cooked) • Broccoli (cooked) • Edamame • Swiss Chard • Beets • Dates • White Beans • Black Beans • Lentils • Soybeans • Fish (salmon, tuna, cod, trout) • Milk • Yogurt • Squash
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Dangerously high potassium, called hyperkalemia, is when potassium levels in your body become dangerously high. Symptoms of this include muscle fatigue and loss of control, weakness, nausea, and heart irregularities. This is typically caused by taking too many potassium supplements or as a complication from different types of medication. It is very rare to experience this when consuming potassium from natural sources (food), which is how we recommend getting your daily potassium. If you are worried you may be experiencing hyperkalemia, a good reference intake for healthy adults is about 3,000 to 4,700 mg of Potassium per day.
Athletes who exercises intensely or people who sweat excessively throughout the day may need an increased daily intake of potassium. When in doubt, consult your doctor to ensure your potassium levels are in a healthy range and get any recommendations based on external factors such as activity level, potential pregnancy, and additional medications.
Potassium is one of the most important—and most overlooked—vital nutrients for our bodies. Potassium effects everything from muscle function to blood pressure, and it’s important to ensure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet in order to look, feel, and move your best. By incorporating small changes to your diet such as more fruits, vegetables, beans, and fish, you can experience huge benefits on your health.
Josie has always had a passion for food and cooking. From a young age, she was always in the kitchen mixing up new recipes and making her family try her way-too-elaborate meals. She was a competitive gymnast for 12 years, which inspired her to pursue her bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering, emphasizing her studies on biochemistry and biomechanics. She is currently a graduate student studying nutritional epidemiology, and loves combining her knowledge of science with her love of food to provide athletes with high-quality, up-to-date nutritional information and research.
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