Why do athletes need potassium?

Photo credit: Potatoes USA

You’ve probably heard about iron and how this mineral helps with maintaining blood oxygen levels. You’ve probably heard about how calcium makes up our bones and teeth. And you’ve probably heard about how too much sodium can raise your blood pressure. But have you heard enough about potassium?

Potassium is a mineral that our body needs to work properly. In fact, it is one of the seven essential macrominerals that we need to supply to the body daily. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees that most of the global population do not meet their recommended daily minimum intake of 3,510 mg per day.

But how can this happen when potassium is the 8th most abundant element on earth?

First of all, we don’t just absorb the nutrients we need – if so, there won’t be nutritionists!

A common cause – but not the only cause – for this is our modern diet which typically consists of highly processed foods. In general, the more processing a food item undergoes, the less potassium it contains. For example, when you boil fresh produce, and throw out the water used for boiling, you lose not only the heat-reactive nutrients but also the minerals that leached into the water. Imagine how this effect is multiplied in highly processed instant goods.

On top of this, the more processing a food item undergoes, the more sodium it usually contains. Too much sodium is bad for the body so our kidneys work hard to try to flush it out. However, eliminating sodium also means eliminating potassium, further lowering serum potassium levels as well as related imbalances in the body. 

Everyone must be concerned, but why should athletes care more?

For the average person, a healthy cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, and nervous system are requirements for a good quality of life.

But for athletes, the health of these body systems can determine sports performance and can therefore make or break their career.

Maintaining healthy serum potassium levels may help maintain and improve the following functions:

  • Nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Potassium, sodium, calcium, and bicarbonate are examples of electrolytes that need to exist in balance with each other. 

Electrolytes conduct electricity when mixed with water. This means that muscles and neurons are dependent on electrolyte balance so that messages can travel seamlessly to and from the brain.

Electrolyte imbalance can cause muscle weakness, twitching, or cramps. In worse cases, it causes seizures and abnormal heart rhythm. As an athlete, you don’t want any of these to happen especially during training or competition.

  • Blood pressure regulation. Where sodium goes, water follows. When there is a lot of sodium in the body, more water is retained; this means that more blood is being pumped by the heart, and more pressure is felt by our blood vessels – hypertension.

This is not good for the cardiovascular system as it overworks the heart and stresses the smallest blood vessels known as the capillaries. If you didn’t know, the kidneys are specialized capillaries that can be destroyed with chronic hypertension, hence may lead to kidney failure.

Remember: a tired cardiovascular system means poor oxygenation and consequently, poor endurance.  So how does our body react to counter this effect? In healthy individuals, the kidneys react by flushing out the excess sodium in the urine. However, this drags out potassium in the process.

When potassium levels are low, the body tries to hold onto it, which means also hanging onto sodium – and the water that clings to it. In conclusion, getting more potassium into the body helps it get rid of excess sodium effectively. 

  • Bone preservation. Remember that experiment we did in primary school wherein when a chicken egg is soaked for some time in vinegar or cola, the shell gradually dissolves? The calcium compounds that build up the shell are weakened and broken down by acid.

The same thing can happen with our bones! Which is why systems are in place to keep our body at a neutral pH of 7.4. Healthy potassium levels can help preserve our calcium stores by serving as an available acid-base buffer. 

What happens otherwise? When potassium is not available to sacrifice itself by acting as a buffer in an acidic environment, calcium is released from the bone into the bloodstream. This can make the bone weak and brittle and may lead to osteoporosis.

The potassium content of canned vegetables is drastically lower than their fresh counterparts. Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

How do I increase my potassium intake?

You can increase your potassium intake by adding more whole, plant foods to your diet. Sources of potassium include:

  • Leafy greens, such as spinach and moringa
  • Fruit from vines, such as grapes and strawberries
  • Root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes
  • Citrus fruits, such as oranges and calamansi

Did you know that there are a lot of plant foods that can provide more potassium than bananas?

One medium banana can provide about 422mg of potassium, while one medium potato can provide 620 mg.
It’s one more reason why I love potatoes! They are just so accessible, versatile, and nutritious.

Final Words

Intentionally increasing our potassium intake can help address the adverse effects of the modern diet. Potassium is an essential mineral that helps lower blood pressure, decrease the risk of stroke, and preserve muscle mass & bone density; all of which are important health variables especially for athletes.

Photo credit: Potatoes USA

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