Irregular Heartbeat? Check Your Potassium

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Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte that plays several important roles in the maintenance of your body's health and function, including your heart's rhythmic contractions. If you have been diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia or hypertension and your laboratory test results indicate a low potassium level in your blood, your physician may recommend that you bump up your intake of potassium. Understanding the benefits of potassium and learning which foods contain this valuable element will help you to make healthy and natural dietary choices in lieu of gulping potassium supplement pills.

What Does Potassium Do?

Potassium is an essential electrolyte that is required to keep your heart functioning optimally. It conducts the electrical activity that promotes regular heart rhythms and heart muscle contractibility, which keeps your heart pumping and your blood circulating efficiently. In addition to maintaining cardiac function, potassium also aids in carrying out the following important bodily functions:

  • Blood filtration through your kidneys
  • Protein formation and muscle development
  • Skeletal and muscular mobility
  • Metabolism of carbohydrates
  • Regulation of mineral balances and fluid levels in the body

A diet that is rich in potassium also offers the benefits of promoting lower systolic blood pressure and maintaining healthier cholesterol levels.

What Can Cause Abnormal Blood Potassium Levels?

Potassium is supplied to your body through the dietary consumption and stored in your blood cells to maintain the proper level for carrying out the aforementioned tasks. Excess potassium is expelled through urination and, to a lesser extent, through perspiration and digestion. If your electrolyte panel reveals that your blood potassium level is low, you are said to have hypokalemia. Hypokalemia can result if you have experienced an extended or severe bout of vomiting or diarrhea. Taking certain medications can cause abnormally low or abnormally high, known as hyperkalemia, results in your blood potassium level. Such medications include the following:

  • Diuretics
  • ACE inhibitor drugs
  • Beta blocker drugs
  • Heparin
  • Insulin
  • Immunosuppressant drugs
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antacids
  • Laxatives
  • Some antibiotics

If you are taking any of these drugs, your physician will need to monitor your blood potassium level at regular intervals. You should not begin taking potassium supplements without your physician's recommendation.

Which Foods Contain Potassium?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the American population takes in only an average of 2,640 milligrams of potassium daily. This does not come close to the 4,700 milligrams that the Institute of Medicine recommends daily for the average adult. Bringing your intake up to meet this recommendation is as easy as eating more of the foods that contain potassium. Some foods that are excellent sources of potassium include the following:

  • Green vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe and kale
  • Other vegetables, such as beets, parsnips, winter squash, artichokes and zucchini
  • Fruits, such as bananas, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit, dried apricots, figs, cantaloupe and mango
  • Avocados
  • Pumpkin
  • Beans, peas, soybeans and lentils
  • Potatoes, including sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes, especially tomato sauce, paste, stewed tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes
  • Nuts
  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Salmon, tuna, flounder, halibut, Pacific cod and shellfish
  • Lean red meats and poultry

Be sure to consume single serving portions of these foods to prevent weight gain and to avoid consuming too much potassium. Choose healthy preparation and cooking methods to prevent high cholesterol and an excessive sodium or sugar intake.

If your blood potassium level is too low, your physician may recommend a daily dose of potassium supplements to restore a healthy electrolyte balance. Whether your treatment plan includes dietary changes or pills, regular monitoring of your electrolyte levels will be essential in preventing hyperkalemia and in preserving your heart health. Contact a doctor who specializes in heart disease treatment for more information.