In The Bahamas, heart disease and hypertension are among the leading causes of doctor’s visits, illness, and death, according to Ministry of Health statistics. Doctors advise that both tracking and maintaining healthy blood pressure levels are essential to overall long-term health and that a well-balanced diet is also important to ensure your body receives necessary nutrients and vitamins, including potassium.
While other nutrients are important for your health, potassium is recognized for its ability to help lower high blood pressure. Cardiovascular specialist Dr. Raghavendra Makam at Cleveland Clinic Florida’s Indian River Hospital in Vero Beach, Florida, confirms that potassium really does lower blood pressure.
“The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends having a sufficient potassium intake both as a preventative measure and a treatment option for patients with hypertension,” said Makam.
He said that the most direct way potassium helps lower blood pressure is in how the nutrient interacts with the kidneys and sodium.
“We know too much sodium is bad for blood pressure, so kidneys have a mechanism for excreting excess sodium to maintain blood pressure,” he said. “Potassium helps the kidneys excrete that excess sodium instead of retaining it.”
Potassium, he said, also helps improve a person’s overall vascular health as it eases tension in the walls of blood vessels, and that, in turn, can have other benefits on heart health.
“Because potassium positively affects your entire vascular system, it helps reduce multiple risks,” said the doctor. “Because it helps blood vessels in your brain, kidneys and heart, it reduces the risk of stroke, kidney failure and heart disease.”
He said surveys have shown that people generally eat too much sodium and not enough potassium and that getting that balance right as part of a well-rounded diet is essential. According to the doctor, the recommended daily requirement of potassium is around 4,700 to 5,000 milligrams.
You’ve probably heard at some point that bananas are the best source of potassium, but Makam cautions against relying on a single fruit as a staple for your daily potassium requirement.
“Since a medium banana contains about 422 milligrams of potassium, you would have to eat more than 10 bananas a day to get the recommended daily amount of potassium, which is obviously not a wise choice given the additional calories it adds to the diet,” he said.
So, while bananas can be one source, it’s important to make sure you’re using other fruits and vegetables to maintain that potassium intake. Other foods Makam recommends for healthy amounts of potassium include cantaloupe, grapefruit, nectarines, kiwi, carrots, lima beans, spinach and avocados.
Besides making sure your diet is well-balanced, Makam recommends factoring in other components, like sugar and starch contents, when choosing foods.
While some people may choose to include certain dietary supplements as part of their daily intake, Makam said nature trumps man-made stuff, and that it’s always preferable to get nutrients and vitamins in adequate amounts from natural sources.
Because of the unregulated nature of supplements, he said, it’s always best to talk to a healthcare provider about ways to improve your intake of certain nutrients and vitamins before buying any supplements.
Just as with anything, it’s possible to have too much potassium, said the doctor.
“Too much potassium can cause severe muscle weakness and heart rhythm problems that can be serious if not diagnosed and corrected early.”
Makam said angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) and aldosterone antagonists, which are some of the common medications designed to lower blood pressure, already help your body retain potassium. If you’re taking one of these medications, and include extra potassium on top of that, there are risks of complications.
He also said people with kidney disease should avoid excess potassium. And that damaged kidneys can’t remove excess potassium from your blood, so the amount can build to dangerous levels, if not monitored correctly.
“The key is balance,” said Makam. “Your healthcare provider will know your specific health conditions, your current medications and latest blood levels, which will help come up with the right approach for you.”