They say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” While apples have many health benefits, I sometimes think the saying should be changed to, “A banana a day keeps the doctor away.” As most of you already know, bananas are an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that is essential for proper nerve and muscle function. It is possible to get sufficient potassium from a healthy diet, but for various reasons, many people do not consume enough of this important nutrient.
How Potassium Functions in the Body
Potassium is an electrolyte, or a substance that conducts electricity. Your body needs a proper balance of electrolytes so cells can send messages controlling nerve impulses, heart function, fluid balance and muscle coordination.
It is your kidneys’ job to keep the electrolyte concentration in your blood in balance by filtering any excess electrolytes out of the body through urination. Your kidneys work to keep the balance when you lose electrolytes through other means, such as sweating. This is why sports drinks tout their high electrolyte content. Athletes or those who do intense workouts can keep potassium levels balanced with the help of these drinks.
As may have already guessed, impaired kidney function can result in low levels of potassium, but often other factors are to blame. Diuretics, which cause the body to shed fluids, may reduce potassium levels. Severe vomiting or diarrhea due to illness may cause dehydration and loss of potassium. People who suffer from eating disorders may have low potassium levels due to malnutrition, vomiting or abuse of laxatives.
Some drugs may deplete potassium levels. The arthritis medication, Prednisone or other corticosteroids, sometimes have this side effect. It is often not severe enough to cause symptoms, though some people may experience muscle weakness. The heart medication Digoxin, on the other hand, has been known to cause cardiac disturbances due to low potassium.
Fighting the Effects of Low Potassium
Often, you will not experience symptoms of low potassium unless your blood levels are very low. Muscle weakness, constipation and fatigue are the most common signs that you may not be getting enough. You may also experience cramps and your reflexes may be slowed slightly. In extreme cases, abnormal heart rhythms may occur. If you have reason to suspect a potassium deficiency, tell your doctor. He or she can examine your blood, test your reflexes or check your heart function with an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). From there, you and your doctor can develop an alternate treatment plan that does not affect potassium levels.
There are several solutions you can use to ensure your body has the potassium it needs to be healthy. If your diet is high in processed food, be sure to add a serving of fruit or vegetables to every meal. The ones highest in potassium are potatoes, avocadoes, tomatoes, spinach, peas, beans, strawberries, oranges (both whole and juice), dried fruit and of course bananas. Take a high quality multi-vitamin to fill in any nutritional gaps as well.
Your doctor may recommend a separate potassium supplement if levels are extremely low. Follow the recommended dose, since it is possible to consume too much of this mineral. The USDA recommends 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day for good health. Getting enough potassium, whether through diet or supplements can also help your heart. In one study, people with high blood pressure who took potassium supplements saw an 8 point drop in systolic blood pressure.
If you suffer from low potassium, your condition can often be treated with great success. Work with your doctor to establish the cause and develop an effective treatment. Meanwhile, eating a diet rich in natural foods will go a long way to restoring potassium levels and keeping your cells active and healthy.
Photo Credit: Andy Newson