The Sodium-Potassium Partnership
Did you know that sodium and potassium were in cahoots? As potassium is pulled into and sodium is pumped out of our cells, the two elements work together to keep our bodies balanced. Now, if you're like most of us, you've probably been conditioned to think, "Sodium bad, potassium good." This is not entirely true. Our bodies need sodium to maintain proper ionic balance in fluids and tissues. A sodium deficiency might lead to dehydration. And too much potassium can be harmful to people with kidney or heart conditions or on certain medications. However, the chances of those things happening to most Americans today are slim. We get much more sodium than we need from the salt content of our food, and do not take in nearly enough potassium to counter that sodium excess.
"Because sodium and potassium work together through molecular pumps to support nerve signals and muscles contractions, the ratio of one to the other has a direct affect on your health."
In order to better understand how sodium and potassium work in the human body, it helps to know a little physiological history: Thousands of years ago, when humans were living mainly in hunter-gatherer societies, salt was scarce. The average salt intake was about 700 milligrams (mg) a day. Because of this, the human body learned to hang onto its salt. We are living witnesses of this adaptation. Our bodies are very good at retaining the 2,500 to 7,500 mg of sodium that we ingest every day (the recommended daily amount is only about 2,000 mg).
Those same ancestors got about 11,000 mg of potassium a day. This puts to shame our average of 2,500 daily mg (the recommended daily amount is about 4,700 mg), which we do not necessarily hang on to. Because sodium and potassium work together through molecular pumps to support nerve signals and muscles contractions, the ratio of one to the other has a direct affect on your health: Excess sodium - which most of us have - is flushed out through urine, and the potassium goes with it. When your body has too little potassium, the reaction is to hoard it. Since potassium and sodium "move together", the sodium gets hoarded as well. This sodium overload causes water retention (because water follows sodium at the molecular level), which increases the amount of blood in your body. Higher blood volume means that the heart has to work harder to pump it through your system, and the result is high blood pressure. Another drawback of high sodium levels is that too much calcium will be flushed out in your urine. Calcium deficiencies often lead to bone weakening, known as osteoporosis. It comes down to this: The best way to avoid or ease high blood pressure, and the health complications it leads to, is to achieve a balance of sodium and potassium. Lowering your salt intake while boosting the amount of potassium you eat will help to do this. It is important that you take both actions, as only doing one or the other will not be nearly as effective as doing both. To lower your sodium, and increase your potassium, eat foods that are high in natural potassium, but contain very little natural or added salt. Ideally, this means eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and preparing meals yourself. Processed and restaurant foods often contain a lot of salt, and send your sodium through the roof in no time. The following foods have favorable potassium to salt ratio:
- Black beans (unsalted)
- Oranges and orange juice
- Prune and grapefruit juices
- Dry roasted peanuts (unsalted)
In addition, always make sue to check the nutrition content labels at the store, as 77 percent of our sodium intake comes from the processed food we buy (think microwaveable or "just add boiling water" packaged meals). Understand that all of this is true even for the healthiest Americans. If you are someone who has hypertension, is African American, or is middle aged or older, you are already at higher risk for serious heart complications. This information is especially important for you. So remember: less salt, more potassium, and large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. This healthy partnership of two important elements will support your healthy heart and cellular balance.