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Potassium and your health

While not as popular as some other minerals, potassium (K) is essential to your health. An average healthy individual, according to DRI (Dietary Reference Intakes, the most recent set of dietary recommendations set by the government) should have 4.7g of potassium a day, or about 3 times more than sodium.

And, while potassium is still relatively abundant in foods, chances are, you are not getting enough of it for optimum health. Average potassium food intake in the U.S. is estimated at 2.3 g and 3.25g for adult females and males, respectively. Food processing takes heavy toll on the amount of potassium reaching you through that channel, and more is lost in discarded cooking water. The body can not store potassium, so you can't count on the reserves.

Possible consequences are many; one rather common is that low potassium intake, especially when combined with higher sodium (salt) intake, can result in hypertension (high blood pressure). Being major electrolyte, potassium is vital for proper cellular function. Thus deficiency can result in a variety of symptoms, from cardiovascular (including heart attack) and high glucose (blood sugar) levels, to fatigue and depression.

Excessive build up of potassium is not likely, since the body only keeps what it needs. However, it is certainly possible, if the system for elimination doesn't function properly (for instance, due to renal failure), or in the presence of metabolic imbalances and health conditions, such as bladder infection and some cancers (ovarian and testicular).

While lowering potassium levels usually helps with bladder infection, its high levels with some cancers do not imply it contributes to the illness; to the contrary, body needs high potassium levels - coming as much as possible from whole, unprocessed foods, with other beneficial nutrients - in order to heal.

The rule that applies to all other nutrients, applies to potassium as well: you don't want it neither depressed, nor elevated. Not only that it needs to have appropriate nominal level, it also needs to be in the appropriate ratio with sodium and other nutrients with which it is in either synergistic or antagonistic relation.

Another common rule also applies: don't rely on the potassium blood fluid level ( "serum potassium"). It is too unreliable. The body sets priorities, and you can have perfectly normal level of potassium (and other nutrients) in your life-line (plasma), while some organs and tissues may be literally starving for it. Go for the RBC (red blood cell) potassium, or any test that measures its cellular level.

Best natural potassium food sources are fruits, vegetables and whole grains.