Shirley came to see me because she was tired. Her children were grown and her husband had recently passed away, leaving her to cook only for herself. She knew her diet was not as healthy as it had been, but she had no real complaints other than her fatigue and a little extra weight. Basically, she was looking for a weight-reduction program that would give her more energy.
However, when I began digging into her health history and current symptoms, I found that Shirley had high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), was chronically tired, and suffered from leg cramps. All of these symptoms began when her diet took a detour into the land of convenience foods.
Previously, Shirley had prepared meals for her family that included fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein. But when she found herself on her own, she ate fewer fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce tended to spoil as she spent more time eating out with friends or making a quick meal of a single food. After eating a chicken breast, she had no desire for anything else. Pasta with tomato sauce was satisfying, and the comfort of salty garlic bread replaced her usual salad. Instead of eating fruit, Shirley tended to snack on crackers and potato chips. Her diet had changed from one that was high in potassium (fruits, vegetables, and beans) and low in sodium, to the opposite. And by changing her potassium-sodium ratio, she created her symptoms.
The importance of potassium
I frequently see patients like Shirley who have more than one complaint. Invariably, there’s a common thread that runs through all or most of their symptoms. It’s not uncommon for me to see someone with chronic fatigue and heart arrhythmias with muscle cramps at night. Or a patient with congestive heart failure accompanied by high blood pressure. These symptoms, along with osteoporosis, can all be linked to a potassium deficiency. When I can find and correct that “bottom line” cause, like an electrolyte imbalance caused by too little potassium, their symptoms and health improve.
Electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride) are important minerals for healthy nervous-system functions, but too much sodium or too little potassium can upset their delicate balance and lead to such problems as irregular heartbeat, fatigue, or high blood pressure. These minerals help regulate your body’s fluids by creating low-voltage electricity that helps run your
body by sending messages throughout your body.
Potassium combines with magnesium to help your muscles contract, while potassium and sodium help regulate fluids around your cells and keep you from retaining too much water. This is important because you may be holding on to three to five pounds of water weight! Your heart, brain, bone strength, and energy all depend not only on getting enough potassium, but getting it in the proper ratio to sodium. Opinions differ as to what this ratio of sodium to potassium should be, but I want you to understand that you need more potassium than sodium. Shirley’s diet was the exact opposite. And low potassium and high sodium can lead to cancer and heart disease.
Where it all began
Most of us need less sodium and more potassium because of the foods that were available to our ancestors hundreds of years ago. At that time, people ate more fruits and vegetables that are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium. Because their diets were so high in potassium, their bodies adapted to any excess by excreting whatever their bodies didn’t need. Since their diet was low in sodium, their bodies learned to hold on to this important mineral.