Some duos are simply better together. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Dr. John Watson? Would Scooby Doo make it through a mystery without Shaggy at his side? What fun is a campfire without marshmallows to toast? While the pairing of sodium and potassium may not get the same level of recognition, these two minerals form a truly dynamic duo. In fact, your sodium-potassium balance has major implications for your health.
Why Sodium-Potassium Balance Matters
With the frequent calls for low-salt diets, sodium has developed a bit of a bad reputation, but this mineral is essential for healthy function. The right amount of sodium helps to maintain the proper balance of fluids in the body and supports the function of nerves and muscles. The problem occurs when there’s too much sodium, and the average American’s diet tends to provide an excessive amount of salt.
While it doesn’t get as much press as sodium, potassium works hand in hand with it. Like sodium, potassium plays a role in muscle and nerve function. It also aids in the transfer of nutrients into cells and moves waste out of them. Sadly, Americans who consistently bypass fruits and veggies for processed foods may fall short in their potassium intake. That’s a problem because the body works best when the ratio between sodium and potassium is just right. What aspects of the body are impacted by the balance of sodium and potassium?
As Harvard Health Publishing points out, before the advent of groceries stores and convenience foods, humans who fed themselves through hunting and gathering generally consumed less than 700 milligrams of sodium and some 11,000 milligrams of potassium on a daily basis. Today, the average American takes in somewhere between 2,500 milligrams and 7,500 milligrams of sodium and just 2,500 milligrams of potassium. This flip-flop in the balance of sodium and potassium can have significant health consequences for many parts of the body, including the bones. A high sodium-potassium ratio can prompt the body to increase the amount of calcium that is excreted in the urine, robbing the body’s bones (which are continually under construction) of a crucial building block. By consuming less salt and more potassium, it’s possible to lower the sodium-potassium ratio, which may help to keep the bones stronger.
The delicate balance between sodium and potassium is easy to see when you look at the kidneys. These organs try to control the levels of these minerals in the body. When excess salt is present, the kidneys try to flush it out in the urine, but this also removes potassium. If potassium levels fall too low, the kidneys struggle to hold onto it, which results in the retention of sodium. Basically, getting rid of excess salt requires the presence of sufficient potassium, so adopting a diet that supports a lower sodium-potassium ratio reduces the burden on the kidneys. As the American Journal of Physiology — Endocrinology and Metabolism reports, multiple studies conducted by researchers all around the globe have made it clear that more dietary potassium can actually slow the progression of chronic kidney disease.
For years, doctors have urged people to cut their sodium intake to reduce their risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and strokes. While reducing the amount of salt consumed is helpful, reducing sodium while simultaneously increasing potassium is even better. According to BMJ Open, a Japanese study evaluated the relationship between sodium-potassium ratio and deaths from cardiovascular diseases, strokes, and other causes. After examining data that spanned nearly a quarter of a century, researchers found that when the ratio of sodium to potassium was high, the risk of mortality from all of these causes increased. As a result, the scientists theorize that a two-pronged strategy that combines decreasing sodium and raising potassium to lower the sodium-potassium ratio is likely to be more effective in the battle against hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes than focusing on either of these minerals alone.
Maintaining a Healthy Balance of Sodium and Potassium
How can you maintain a healthy sodium-potassium balance? Eating like a hunter-gatherer can help. Hidden sodium is often lurking among empty calories in processed foods. Meanwhile, many fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of potassium. Therefore, swapping out some heavily processed foods in favor of whole foods and other paleo-friendly, nutrient-dense options will automatically lower your sodium intake and increase your potassium consumption.
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