Balancing Potassium and Salt Intake

High blood pressure results from many factors, but there's always one common denominator: excessive salt and an incorrect balance between sodium and potassium.

You must understand these two minerals.

Potassium and sodium are the body's two main electrolytes, nutrients essential for nerve conduction, energy production, cell integrity, and many other functions of the body. Both are capable of conducting electricity. Salt dissolves to form the electrolytes sodium and chloride. Pure distilled water does not conduct electricity, however water containing salt does because sodium and chloride are ions, each containing an electrical charge.

Sodium is an ion in the fluid outside of your body's cells, and potassium is the main ion in the fluid inside the cells. A large part of your body's energy is focused on maintaining sodium/potassium balance. This balance between sodium and potassium is essential in sustaining life. It is critical for heart function, as well as nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction.

Your daily intake of sodium chloride, or salt, is around three times greater than your daily intake of potassium. The necessary balance of these minerals is not attainable through the typical dietary choices in this country. Studies are showing that the imbalance of this ratio in the Western world is connected to increased hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.

We generally don't lack sufficient levels of either sodium or potassium because we get all we need from our food. However, most people typically get far too much sodium from food. Having the correct balance of potassium and sodium, or K-factor, enables your cells to carry out their functions. As an example, nerve impulse conduction, which causes you to pull your hand from something hot and tells your heart to beat, also requires the right ratio of sodium and potassium to function properly.

When your body accumulates too much sodium, it needs to return things to normal by using the kidneys to excrete the excess sodium. If the kidneys can't eliminate enough sodium from the blood, your vascular system constricts and increases resistance to blood flow, causing your blood pressure to increase, which in turn forces the kidneys to excrete more sodium.

Doctors may suggest diuretics to control high blood pressure. Diuretics cause the body to eliminate more fluids and, with the fluid, sodium. This usually reduces blood pressure, but also can cause the kidneys to remove potassium. You can help replace this lost potassium with diet or supplements.

The average adult needs a minimum of about 200 to 250 milligrams of sodium daily, which usually comes from about 650 milligrams of salt, and the requirement for potassium is about 1,000 milligrams. Therefore, we require considerably more potassium than sodium, although the ratio of potassium to sodium is probably more important than the absolute amount of either.

At the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, researchers found that chronically low potassium levels have been associated with a numerous lung disorders, kidney disease, as well as hypertension in both adults and children.

A clinical trial of those with mild hypertension found that adding moderate amounts of potassium to both men and women in the study resulted in a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure. They noted that the regular diets of the participants were high in sodium and low in potassium.

Potassium also helps to regulate your heartbeat. If you experience irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmias, your potassium levels may be low. Potassium helps control muscle function as well. As potassium directs the transfer of nutrients through the cell membranes, this function will decrease with aging. This accounts for the circulatory damage, lethargy and weakness of the elderly.

Warning symptoms of low potassium may include abnormally dry skin, acne, chills, cognitive impairment, constipation, depression, diarrhea, diminished reflexes, edema, nervousness, excessive thirst, glucose intolerance, growth impairment, hypoglycemia, high cholesterol levels, insomnia, low blood pressure, muscular fatigue, headaches, salt retention and hypersensitivity to salt, and even respiratory distress.

Good sources of potassium are found in fruits and vegetables, particularly potatoes, plums, prunes, raisins, bananas, tomatoes and tomato juice, orange juice, artichokes, lima beans, acorn squash, spinach, nuts and seeds, apricots, avocado and garlic. Other foods with substantial amounts of potassium are fish, meat, poultry, whole grains, yogurt, bee pollen, dulse, spirulina and chlorella.

Reducing the amount of sodium you consume may help you reduce or avoid high blood pressure. High blood pressure is more likely to lead to heart disease and stroke. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States.

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