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Potassium deficiency in humans

There have been many international studies on the effect of potassium on our cardiovascular system. The conclusions are that more potassium in the diet is beneficial for both men and women, but that especially women and athletes benefit from this.
Potassium is perhaps the most important electrolyte in the human body. In this blog we therefore look at what potassium is exactly, what it can do for our health and which foods are rich in it.
Of the 4 main electrolytes a human body needs on a daily basis:
K – Potassium 4700mg per day;
Na – Sodium (Nitrogen) 1500-2300mg per day;
Ca – Calcium 1000mg per day;
Mg – Magnesium 420mg per day;

Scientists have been sounding the alarm for some time, because the number of people with a potassium deficiency has been increasing in recent years. According to the US National Center for Health Statistics, even 98-100% of Americans would not meet the recommended daily allowance for potassium. A severe deficiency of potassium is also known as hypokalemia. In Europe, 20% of patients in hospital are said to have a mild potassium deficiency and 5% a severe deficiency.

Functions of Potassium

Potassium is the most abundant mineral in the body after calcium and phosphorus. About 98% of all Potassium is located in the cells of our body of which 80% in the muscle cells and only 2% in the body fluids. Once dissolved in our body, this mineral functions as a positively charged electrolyte. This means it can conduct electricity and thus regulate fluid balance, transmit signals through the nervous system and allow muscles to contract.

Muscles contract and relax again by means of the sodium potassium pump using calcium and energy in the form of ATP. Most of the potassium is in the muscle cell and most of the sodium is outside the muscle cell. When the muscle receives a signal from the brain, the muscle cell lets sodium in and potassium flows out. This causes a muscle to tense and when the potassium and sodium are squeezed back, a muscle relaxes.

The latter means that potassium is also very important for heart rate; a deficiency of this mineral can disrupt this process. Potassium is also involved in maintaining the acid-base balance in the body.

Potassium also plays an important role in the transmission and speed of signals in nerve cells. Athletes therefore benefit from a diet rich in potassium so that they build more muscle mass that reacts faster. Think of boxers, tennis players, football players and strength athletes.

A deficiency of potassium in athletes can result in cramping and muscle fatigue.

Blood pressure

Sodium and potassium work together in our body to regulate fluid balance. They are sometimes called each other's counterpart. In comparison with potassium, sodium has the property of binding more moisture to itself. If you eat a lot of sodium, the amount of sodium in your blood rises and with it the amount of fluid. This causes the blood pressure to rise again. This in turn greatly increases the risk of an infarction. If you then eat more potassium, the blood pressure drops again. This works on the one hand because the amount of water in the veins decreases, but on the other hand also because potassium causes the vessel walls to widen and the excretion of fluid and waste products through the kidneys. Eating more potassium helps the body get rid of the sodium imbalance and can drop blood pressure by as much as 6 mmHg. High blood pressure is a major source of disease among the western population due to unilateral salt consumption. One of the reasons for the frequent occurrence of high blood pressure is that our diet contains too many refined foods and too few fruits and vegetables. Refined foods are often flavored with exorbitant amounts of refined salt.

Most potassium is found in fruits. A good fruit fertilizer is therefore an NPK fertilizer that is high in potassium (K) and lower in sodium (N) and phosphorus (P). A fertilizer high in K therefore also produces more and larger fruits.

A normal person needs 2 pieces of fruit per day, where (top) athletes need 3 to 4 pieces of fruit because a lot of potassium is lost during the excretion of acids created by muscles.

Deficiencies

In addition to high blood pressure, a potassium deficiency can also cause many other complaints such as weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, inability to sleep, arteriosclerosis, tingling, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat and constipation. The latter is because potassium helps to send signals from the brain to the intestines, which can cause contractions there.

A severe potassium deficiency will often result in swollen ankles and feet.

Insulin resistance or diabetics also have an increased need for potassium. I myself once helped my diabetes 2 by increasing my potassium, magnesium and vitamin D (tanning bed) intake and forcing myself against the will of my body to do an interval training on an empty stomach where I ran 12x 3 minutes with 1 minute rest each time. It is important that your heart rate always exceeds 120 and at rest it always comes just below 120. In this way you force your body to consume the too high sugar and insulin level with the help of the minerals and Vitamin D. A workout was enough to make me feel good again afterwards.

Stress also consumes a lot of potassium and other minerals and vitamins. A person with a high level of stress would certainly do well to take in more potassium with magnesium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D to stay calm.

Apart from a too low dietary intake of potassium, we can also become deficient due to (chronic) diarrhoea, the use of laxatives, frequent vomiting, eating clay, hormonal abnormalities and the use of medicines. There is also some evidence that a lack of potassium can hinder insulin production and thereby boost blood sugar levels. Potassium ensures that the body can store glucose sugar in the liver.

Potassium salt

Some doctors and dietitians recommend that patients with high blood pressure replace normal sodium chloride-based salt with potassium salt. According to research, potassium does indeed lower blood pressure. Unfortunately, experiments by professional bakers showed that pure potassium salt has a bitter and metallic taste, which is why it is usually not appreciated. They advise against using a lot of potassium salt and suggest replacing only part of the sodium with it. However, you can also take potassium in the form of potassium bicarbonate directly with a glass of water.

When using sodium-based salt, coarsely ground sea salt is recommended, because table salt is very finely ground and therefore contains more sodium per volume. The sodium content per 100 grams does not differ much on paper. Nevertheless, according to a study, (Celtic) sea salt raises blood pressure less than refined salt. An analysis shows that table salt contains virtually no minerals, in contrast to unrefined salt. For example, the latter contains slightly less sodium and much more magnesium and potassium.

Potassium through supplements

There are several brands on the market that offer potassium as a supplement. There are also athletes who drink pure potassium bicarbonate with tea. Properly balanced, this will help build and maintain muscle mass, and will give the athlete a faster recovery time. However, it is not recommended to take this just because a healthy diet can easily meet the potassium needs by eating well-grown fruit. In addition, potassium from tablets or supplements can also lead to an excess, which can cause gastrointestinal complaints in mild cases, but in more serious cardiac arrhythmias. An excess of potassium will make the pH value in the body too high. A first indication of a potassium surplus is when the urine is white in color because the body does not want to secrete acids and occasionally muscles contract uncontrollably (too high or low pH value). Too much potassium can also cause kidney stones, which makes urination more difficult. A glass of water with malic acid and no more potassium for a while quickly solves these problems. The malic acid lowers the pH again and causes potassium to dissolve kidney stones again.

Recommended daily amount

Every day, both men and women need about 4700 mg of potassium. Kidney patients are often advised to cut back on potassium and to follow a low-potassium diet. The reason for this is completely unclear to me as long as one is not yet in end stage 5 renal failure. There are indications that more potassium can sometimes be beneficial for kidney patients as well; this has been further researched in recent years.

Closing word

For good health, it is important to keep an eye on the intake of sufficient potassium. Most people do not meet the recommended daily allowance. Many people focus on other nutrients such as magnesium, which quickly loses sight of potassium. A deficiency of potassium can easily be countered by eating more home-grown vegetables, fruit, legumes and fish.