A potassium deficiency, and sodium overload, can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and more. Here, how to adapt your diet for better balance between the two.
Sodium, Potassium + Heart Health
From 1972 to 1992, a landmark study on heart disease was conducted in Finland. The study reduced sodium, or salt, consumption in participants’ diets, while increasing potassium consumption. Conventional salt (sodium chloride) was replaced with a potassium salt made with potassium chloride, which tastes almost exactly the same as sodium-based salts.
The results were literally heard around the world, but then somehow forgotten.
During this 20-year study, when heart patients increased their ratio of potassium to sodium, the rate of death from stroke decreased by 62% in men and 63% in women. The rate of death from ischemic heart disease decreased by 55% in men and 68% in women.
Volumes of follow-up research confirmed the link between low potassium, high sodium intake, and cardiovascular concerns.1,2
Eat More Potassium
Western diets are insidiously high in salt and low in potassium, and reversing these ratios requires a concerted effort.
According to the USDA, the average American consumes only 2,640 mg of potassium per day, while the suggested daily dietary intake for adults is 4,700 mg—making most Americans deficient in potassium.3
On the other hand, American sodium intake averages 3,330 mg per day, which is more than twice the suggested daily intake of 1,500 mg.4,5
Compare that to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who consumed a whopping 7,000 mg of potassium per day, and less than 1,000 daily mg of sodium.5
Try Nu Salt, a potassium chloride salt used in the Finnish study.
Vegetarians Naturally Eat More Potassium
Centenarian cultures around the world consume mostly plant-based diets with only 10% animal protein. They consume daily servings of high-potassium and low-sodium fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Studies on groups of vegetarians, including the Trappist Monks, Seventh-Day Adventists, and vegetarian groups in Boston and Israel, found that high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes were rare in these communities.2
Another study showed that, in some cases, high potassium vegetarian diets are successfully used to treat heart failure and cardiovascular disease. One study concluded that vegetarian diets have a hand in preventing and reversing atherosclerosis, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, and reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by 40%.6
Studies that reported on people who ate red meat once a month, were lacto-ovo vegetarians or pescatarians (all-high potassium, low-sodium diets) saw significant cardiovascular health rewards compared to people who ate meat regularly.7,8
Potassium-rich, plant-based vegetarian diets have also been found to beneficial in weight management and helpful in reducing the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
We Recommend067: Blue Zones with Dan Buettner
Signs of Low Potassium
Normal potassium serum levels are considered to be between 3.6–5.2 mmol/L. Levels lower than 3.6 mmol/L are considered to be indicative of mild hypokalemia, which is associated with:
- Increased blood pressure
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Increased bone turnover
- Muscle cramps
- Increased risk of kidney stones
Moderate to severe hypokalemia is defined as less than 2.5 mmol/L and is considered potentially life-threatening. Signs include:
- Glucose intolerance
- Poor respiration
- Increased risk of cardiac arrhythmia
Overall, insufficient potassium intake is linked to multiple health risks, including increased risk of hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.1,2,9,14
Reversing Low Potassium and High Sodium with Diet
Studies suggest that the best way to glean the benefits of adequate potassium in your diet is to eat more potassium-rich, plant-based foods and less salt.
Experts in this field, like Richard Moore, MD, PhD, suggest a potassium ratio of 4:1, meaning we should consume four times as many milligrams of potassium as we do milligrams of sodium. The key is to not only eat more high-potassium foods, but to also eat low-sodium (low-salt) foods as well. Some of my favorite foods in this category include:
- Whole grains and oatmeal
- All fruits, but especially avocado, banana, cantaloupe, dates, coconut, peaches, plantains, and strawberries
- All nuts, but particularly almonds, walnuts, and pecans
- All beans, especially black beans, kidney, garbanzo, and lentils
- All vegetables have high potassium-to-sodium ratios; white potatoes with the skins on top the list
Some Cautionary Notes
- The takeaway here is NOT to avoid salt or sodium and to only eat potassium-rich, low-sodium foods. Both sodium and potassium are electrolytes needed to drive the sodium-potassium pump, mitochondrial energy, muscle contractions, and healthy lymphatic flow. The goal is to consume potassium and sodium in a beneficial ratio.
- Simply avoid high-sodium foods. You can do this by avoiding packaged foods. Humans seem to love packaging and preserving food with salt. So, no wrappers!
- Many health-conscious eaters who are primarily plant-based can lack salt in their diets—especially if they are not attracted to chips or salty foods. Plant-based diets are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium, making salt an important addition to a healthy diet. Having too little salt in your diet can actually lower blood pressure, causing fatigue and dizziness. So for those plant-based eaters who get dizzy after standing up and have low blood pressure, take ¼ tsp of a natural salt with water and see if this brings you back into balance.
Potassium and Magnesium Deficiencies Linked
Sodium and potassium are involved in thousands of chemical processes in the body. In addition to bone, heart, circulatory, blood sugar, kidney, and metabolic health, they may play a leading role in the healthy contractions of muscles, weakness, cramping, and loss of muscle mass. They play a critical role in cardiovascular health, because the heart and arteries depend on magnesium and potassium for healthy muscular contractions.11,12
A 2006 survey reported that almost half (48%) of the American population was deficient in magnesium. Magnesium is linked to many of the health concerns seen with potassium deficiency.13 If potassium levels are low, magnesium levels are also likely to be low. And in one study, 42% of those who were deficient in magnesium were also deficient in potassium. Magnesium protects cells from losing potassium. These two minerals should always be taken together—because they are depleted together.11
Learn more about safe potassium-magnesium supplementation. And try our Potassium-Mg Boost to help you get enough of these two essential minerals.
Disclaimer: Certain medications for high blood pressure and hypertension are contraindicated with potassium supplementation. People with kidney disease, diabetes, heart disease, Addison’s disease, stomach ulcers, or other health problems should never take potassium supplements without talking to a doctor first.
Signs of a potassium overdose include muscle weakness or paralysis, irregular heartbeat, confusion, tingling sensation in the limbs, low blood pressure, and coma. Get emergency medical help immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.