February is American Heart Health Month. Potassium plays a role in every heartbeat. A hundred thousand times a day, it helps trigger your heart to squeeze blood through your body. Potassium also helps your muscles to move, your nerves to work, and your kidneys to filter blood.
Potassium doesn’t treat or prevent heart disease. But getting enough of it can help your heart in many ways:
Better Blood Pressure
There is strong evidence to suggest that potassium lowers blood pressure, whether consumed in foods primarily as potassium bicarbonate, or as a dietary supplement in the form of potassium chloride or other potassium salt. Specifically, potassium has been noted to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in people with normal and high blood pressure. Potassium’s blood pressure lowering effect is greatest in those that need it most: those with hypertension, those who are salt-sensitive, and those who consume the most sodium.
It is important for those with hypertension to know that blood pressure is lowered with increased potassium and with an increase in the ratio of potassium to sodium. Potassium also reduces salt sensitivity, an independent risk factor for heart disease. Even without diagnosed hypertension, salt-sensitive individuals may experience spikes in blood pressure when they eat salty foods. Eating enough potassium-rich foods reduces or prevents the blood pressure response to dietary sodium, possibly by stimulating excretion of sodium chloride, or inhibiting sympathetic nerve response.
Emerging research suggests that potassium affects the structure and mechanical function of the heart, which can lead to improvements in many cardiovascular risk factors. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, low potassium levels may cause irregular heartbeats.
Potassium works to control what is called the membrane potential, which is important for regulating your heart rate. Potassium is a positively charged ion that is concentrated inside of your cells, and it interacts with sodium concentrations outside of your cells.
These two electrolytes create an electrical and chemical connection that crosses your cells’ membranes. This grid is called the membrane potential, and your cells can maintain its balance by exchanging sodium and potassium ions across the cell membrane. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, the regulation of the membrane potential is essential for regulating your heart’s function.
While there’s no direct link between the two, many diets that lower cholesterol are also high in potassium, as well as fruits and veggies. A potassium deficiency is a sign of low fruit and veggie intake. Anyone with this deficiency is susceptible to high HDL and LDL cholesterol levels because animal products and sweets or processed foods are likely substitutes. If you drop your LDL (bad cholesterol), the chances of you getting heart disease will also go down.