At Risk of Having A Stroke - Can Potassium Help?
Strokes - or cerebrovascular accident (CVA) - is one of the biggest reasons for disability and death in the Western world. There are a number of things that we can do to reduce our risk of having a stroke and one of the most simplest may be to take more potassium in our diet. The BMJ (British Medical Journal) carried out extensive research on the effects of potassium on heart disease and stroke. Their findings suggest that taking a higher level of potassium in our diet could reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by as much as 24%.
Why potassium? Because this mineral helps to reduce blood pressure the leading cause of strokes. Potassium lowers blood pressure by helping to excrete excess sodium (salt) levels from the body. Sodium can cause high blood pressure because the body retains fluid to wash the sodium out. This extra fluid puts increased pressure on the heart and blood vessels.
However, it should be made clear that people who have kidney problems should not take potassium unless directed or under the supervision of a doctor. In addition, although this mineral does have essential health benefits, taking very high volumes could lead to toxicity.
We'll have a brief look at this mineral and it's connection to blood pressure reduction. We'll also look at the healthiest and easiest ways to take potassium in your diet.
Strokes and high blood pressure
A stroke is when, either due to a blockage or bleeding, cells die or become badly damaged. This happens because a stroke blocks off oxygen and nutrients vital for all cells to survive.
One of the major causes of stroke is high blood pressure - known medically as hypertension. The force exerted against a blood vessel wall by the blood as it's pumped through the cardiovascular system is the blood pressure. For the most part the cause of hypertension is unknown but there are some conditions that are known to cause it such as kidney disease or hormone problems. However, there are also certain factors that seem to contribute to high blood pressure - for example obesity.
The problem with high blood pressure is that it often produces no symptoms and so a person can be suffering from this condition for many years without realising it. Having high blood pressure over a long period of time can damage blood vessels. When this happens it can lead to heart disease, kidney disease or strokes.
Therefore, the more we can do to try and ensure that our blood pressure lies within as normal a range as possible the better.
What does potassium do?
The mineral potassium carries out a number of essential functions within the human body:
- It maintains the normal activity of muscles and nerves - including those of the major organs such as the heart.
- Maintains osmotic pressure within body cells and helps to get rid of excess sodium.
- Assists with the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates in body cells.
- Potassium is also an electrolyte which means it conducts electricity in the body. Other electrolytes include - chloride, calcium, sodium and magnesium. Electrolytes are needed to give electrical charges for the proper working of, for example, the heart, other muscles and nerves.
In medical research carried out by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has shown that ensuring a healthy intake of potassium can reduce the risk of having a stroke.
According to NHS UK, they found the WHO results interesting but also cautioned against people increasing potassium over the normal limit. The reason for this is that research showed taking very high amounts of potassium didn't decrease the risks. Secondly, due to the potential harmful effects of potassium, people need to be vigilant about the amount they are taking daily and shouldn't go to extremes. However, people who have a nutritious diet with foods containing potassium showed a reduced risk of stroke by 24%.
Other medical research carried out at The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, did so with people over an extended period of time. Their results seemed to conclude that taking an increase of around 1000mg per day of potassium reduced the risk of ischaemic stroke by about 11%. An ischaemic stroke is where a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked, leading to damage and death of brain cells beyond the blockage where blood can't enter. The research however, also showed that increasing potassium intake had no effect on another type of stroke caused by bleeding into the brain - haemorrhagic stroke.
The results from all the research carried out is very interesting and seems to suggest a strong probability that ensuring we have good levels of potassium in our daily diet, could go a long way to protecting us from both high blood pressure and some forms of stroke.
So what foods should we be eating to ensure we get our recommended daily intake of potassium?
Potassium in the diet
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Natural sources of potassium
There are many nutritious foods that are good sources of potassium. As a guideline, the following amounts of potassium daily are recommended:
- Adults and young people over the age of 13 years - approximately 4700mg per day.
- For children younger than 13 years the intake varies by age and its best to speak to a doctor, pharmacist or other health professional for advice on potassium intake.
Research carried out in the USA found the most people don't get enough potassium with the diet they are on. They found that men only manage to get around 3100mg and women about 2300mg per day.
There are a large number of foods that contain potassium, below is a list of the most common:
- Bananas - this is best known high-potassium food.
- Avocados - have more potassium than bananas.
- Red meat
As we can see there are plenty of common everyday foods that contain all the potassium we need. Having a balanced diet is the best way to ensure that you take the levels needed for general health and as an aid to prevent high blood pressure and by extension strokes.
However, if you do have an existing illness such as problems with your kidneys, or taking certain medications, then you must speak to your doctor before trying to increase your potassium intake. Although potassium is essential for health, too much can cause toxicity in the body.
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