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Potassium and Your Heart

Potassium is a nutrient with a crucial job: It enables your heart to beat. A hundred thousand times a day, potassium helps trigger your heart to squeeze blood through your body.

Potassium helps your muscles to move, your nerves to work, and your kidneys to filter blood.

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If you have high blood pressure, heart failure, or heart rhythm problems, getting enough potassium can be especially important. Although potassium and cholesterol aren't directly related, eating a potassium-rich diet might lower your cholesterol, too.

Food Sources of Potassium

Eating fruits and vegetables is the best way to get enough potassium. It's also in dairy products, whole grains, meat, and fish.

Excellent sources of potassium include:

  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocados
  • Fresh fruits (bananas, oranges, and strawberries)
  • Orange juice
  • Dried fruits (raisins, apricots, prunes, and dates)
  • Spinach
  • Beans and peas

The Benefits

Potassium doesn't treat or prevent heart disease.

Research suggests that getting enough potassium can benefit the heart in several important ways:

High blood pressure. In a study of people with high blood pressure, taking potassium supplements reduced systolic blood pressure -- the top number -- by about 8 points. But you don’t have to pop potassium pills. A diet high in fruits and vegetables and fat-free or low-fat dairy foods can help lower systolic blood pressure by more than 10 points in people with hypertension.

Cholesterol. There's no direct link between potassium and cholesterol. But many diets proven to lower cholesterol are also high in potassium. When you’re focused on getting enough potassium, you'll probably end up eating more fruits and vegetables, which are low in saturated fat and cholesterol. This will help your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.

Abnormal heart rhythms. Potassium plays a role in every heartbeat. So, for abnormal heart rhythms, potassium may be key. Your doctor can advise you on that. You’ll need to see a doctor on a regular basis; and a periodic potassium check might be part of your routine visits.

How Much Potassium Do You Need?

How much potassium should you be eating? The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day for healthy people. The easiest way to get this amount is by adding high-potassium fruits and vegetables to your diet.

When it comes to potassium, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Most healthy people shouldn't have any problems from eating a high-potassium diet or taking potassium supplements as directed. But if you have kidney failure or other kidney problems, check with your doctor about how much potassium you should get.

Potassium might also interact with your medications. Some medications can increase potassium levels, including spironolactone (Aldactone), triamterene, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim), and some ACE inhibitors.

Some diuretics for heart failure can make you lose potassium in your urine. You can put it back by taking a supplement or eating more potassium-rich foods.

Ask your doctor before starting a potassium supplement on your own.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Thomas M. Maddox, MD on July 15, 2012

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