Updated: Jul 30, 2020
If you have high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), you’re likely to be on prescription medication and a low-salt diet. But there are hundreds of studies that show the benefits of potassium in decreasing blood pressure. With nearly half of Americans having high blood pressure and less than two percent consuming the RDA of potassium, more focus should be on potassium levels.
What Is It and Who Has It?
In 2017, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association published new guidelines for hypertension management. They defined stage 1 hypertension as blood pressure at or above 130/80 mm Hg. Stage 2 hypertension is defined as 140/90 mm Hg.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure is common; however, some groups have higher rates of it compared to others.
A greater percentage of men have high blood pressure than women.
It’s more common in non-Hispanic black adults than in non-Hispanic white adults, non-Hispanic Asian adults, or Hispanic adults.
Those living in southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have nearly a 30% higher incidence rate than those living in western, southwestern, and northeastern states.
Risks and Complications
Hypertension is one of the conditions for having metabolic syndrome, a group of metabolic disorders that raises the chance of developing stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. These are among the leading causes of death in the United States.
There are other, lesser-known complications that result from high blood pressure. It can damage the blood vessels in and leading to your kidneys. Over time, this can cause kidney scarring and even kidney failure. Having diabetes in addition to high blood pressure can worsen the damage.
Hypertension can also damage the tiny, delicate blood vessels that supply blood to your eyes. Damage to your retina, fluid buildup under the retina, and even nerve damage may occur as a result.
Other complications from high blood pressure include:
Shortness of breath
Modern Treatments for Hypertension
It’s clear that hypertension can cause many serious health conditions, and most conventional doctors are quick to address it with prescription medication and recommended lifestyle changes, including:
Medication including thiazide diuretics, angiotensin-converting (ACE) inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARB’s)
Eating a diet with less salt
Getting more exercise
Losing excess weight
Limiting alcohol consumption
How Potassium Affects Blood Pressure
While doctors generally recognize the role of sodium in hypertension, there needs to be more emphasis given to the beneficial role of potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte (a mineral with an electrical charge), and it helps lessen the effect of too much sodium. In that way, potassium and sodium are partners. There are microscopic molecular pumps in our cells that pull potassium in and push sodium out. This process creates a chemical battery that drives the transmission of signals along nerves and powers the contraction of muscles. This process, when in balance, promotes relaxation of blood vessel walls. Imbalance from too much sodium or too little potassium creates dysfunction and increased blood pressure.
Potassium and the Human Diet
Humans evolved over millions of years by hunting and gathering for food. Potassium was abundant, and sodium was scarce. Hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic era consumed about 11,000 milligrams of potassium from fruits, vegetables, leaves, flowers, and other plant sources but only about 700 milligrams of sodium.
Today, sodium is plentiful and inexpensive. It is abundant in our diets, much of it in processed or prepared foods. On average, Americans consume between 2,500 and 7,500 milligrams (about one to three teaspoons) of sodium daily. Our bodies only really need 200 milligrams per day! With potassium, however, Americans consume an average of only 2,700 milligrams a day—about half of the recommended 4,700 milligrams. So it’s not a coincidence that this imbalance in consumption exists alongside the fact that more than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure.
Why It’s So Challenging To Get Enough Potassium
Potassium is found in abundance in certain whole foods—fish, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Sadly, these are the foods that are not often consumed because of preference for processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and salt. It’s clear that as our appetite for processed foods has increased, our potassium intake has decreased.
Bananas are a good source of potassium, but contrary to popular belief, not the highest source. Great sources include:
6 oz Salmon 1068 mg potassium
1 Whole Avocado 900 mg
1 Cup Swiss Chard 961 mg
1 Cup White beans 829 mg
2 Wedges Watermelon 640 mg
1 Cup Edamame 675 mg
1 Cup Black Beans 611 mg
1 Cup Butternut Squash 582 mg
1 Medium Sweet Potato 540 mg
1 Cup Spinach 540mg
1 Cup Bananas 530 mg
1 Cup Beets 518 mg
6 Dried Apricots 488 mg
Hypertension is another condition that could benefit from a closer examination of people's diets, specifically potassium levels. Up until now conventional medicine has focused on sodium intake and prescription medication. Sodium intake is an important factor but should be coupled with measuring potassium levels. There are side effects with many hypertension medications, and these could be avoided with dietary intervention that includes both reducing salt along with increasing potassium-rich foods.
If you struggle with high blood pressure, I recommend taking a good look at your potassium level. Your doctor can order a potassium test as part of a basic metabolic or electrolyte panel. If you’re level is low, track your foods for a three-day period and make an estimate of your daily potassium intake. Getting to the recommended 4,700 milligrams per day is challenging but possible with dedication to eating more whole, unprocessed foods. With effort, you’ll likely reap the many benefits of a nutrient-dense diet, including increased energy, improved sleep, and of course normal blood pressure.
Check with your doctor before altering your diet if you’re currently taking blood pressure medication. And sign up below to be notified of future Montgomery Nutrition blog posts that can help you identify healthy food practices.