If you have ever seen an athlete reach for a banana to refuel during a workout, you may assume they are hoping to keep cramps at bay. That’s because bananas are high in potassium, a mineral that may help relieve cramps. But there are other roles potassium plays in our health.
Potassium is key to helping maintain many functions of the body, including proper kidney and heart function, muscle contraction and even nerve transmission. When someone experiences an imbalance of potassium in their body, it can cause issues ranging from uncomfortable and bothersome to downright dangerous.
Shanon Murillo, a physician assistant at the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Care Clinic, shares five key things to know about this important mineral and the effect it has on our health:
- Kidneys play a key role in regulating potassium.
Healthy kidneys work hard behind the scenes to ensure that extra potassium in the body is excreted through urination. For some individuals, the kidneys may not be able to get rid of the extra potassium. “The most common causes of chronic kidney problems are diabetes and hypertension, which is elevated blood pressure," Murillo says. “While genetics can play a factor, other conditions, such as Addison’s disease and dehydration, can also affect your kidneys.”
- People can have too much or too little potassium.
Murillo shares that hypokalemia (low potassium) and hyperkalemia (high potassium) are conditions that affect the body differently. Most healthy individuals will not have high levels of potassium in their blood if they have normal kidney function. People with kidney disease and acute or chronic kidney failure are most at risk of having high potassium. Low blood levels of potassium can be caused by taking diuretics (water pills); having certain kidney or adrenal gland disorders; or having severe or prolonged vomiting or diarrhea.
- A doctor can help monitor potassium levels.
In most cases, the level of potassium in your blood should be between 3.5 and 5.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). While you may not know what your current levels are, don’t fret. A health care provider can do a complete metabolic panel by taking a blood sample and analyzing key indicators, including electrolytes and kidney function.
- Signs of potassium imbalance can present in many ways.
When it comes to potassium issues, it’s not a one-size-fits-all list of symptoms. According to Murillo, patients with low potassium may experience muscle cramping, nausea and vomiting. “We can see and care for patients here at the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Care Clinic,” she says. “One of the extreme changes in your potassium can give you symptoms such as chest pain or confusion and should be evaluated in an emergency setting.”
- Bananas aren’t the only good source of potassium.
No matter what your palate prefers, potassium can be found in many foods. While bananas are widely known as a potassium-rich food, there are plenty of other options. Murillo suggests fruits, such as papayas, honeydew and mangos. Vegetables, including potatoes, beans, spinach, avocado, tomatoes and winter squash, all have potassium power too.