If you’ve ever enjoyed an ice-cold sports drink, you’ve probably consumed or at least heard of potassium before. You may even know that it is supposed to help you recover faster from heavy exertion--even though at football games they always seem to get this part wrong and just pour it on someone’s head instead!

Read on to see what potassium is, how it work in our bodies, and how to make sure you’re getting enough of it.

What Is It?

Potassium is an alkali metal, represented on the periodic table with the symbol K. Humans rely on potassium as an important electrolyte [1] that helps keep our bodies functioning properly.

Its name comes from potash, which is the ashes of burned plant material. This is the substance from which potassium was first discovered. Thus, potash inspired the moniker potassium.

What Is Its Biological Role?

Potassium’s job in the body [2] is sort of like kid-proofing your house. You know counters will always have pointy corners, but you put bumpers on all the corners and in the drawers and you cover the outlets, all to prevent your little one from hurting himself.

Similarly, when you digest food, acid is produced. In large amounts this can be harmful, but luckily potassium shields us from the destructive effects of a portion of that acid, helping to maintain our body’s delicate pH balance.  Potassium also works alongside sodium to control fluid levels in our bodies.

In the process it also helps counteract the negative effects of sodium. That is, sodium raises blood pressure and potassium lowers it. Maintaining a healthy blood pressure level is vital to reducing your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Potassium is also one of the chemical in our body that helps regulate muscle contraction. This include skeletal muscles like those that move your arms and legs, but also muscles such as the heart.

How Does It Help Bodybuilders and People Who Work Out?

Two of potassium’s functions should be of particular importance to fitness enthusiasts: its effect on fluid levels and its effect on muscles. Issues with dehydration or swelling (dysregulated fluids) are going to have a negative effect on your performance, whether you are in the gym or competing elsewhere. 

Additionally, like all electrolytes, potassium is quickly depleted as we sweat. If you lose too much potassium through sweat, you can end up experiencing muscle cramps, and feeling ill due to dehydration. None of that would make for a very positive workout.

What Foods Contain It?

Potassium is generally found in larger amounts in the following foods: bananas, potatoes, squash, green leafy veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, milk, and whole grain products like breads or cereals.

How Much Of It Do You Need?

The recommended daily allowance of potassium [3] is 400mg per day for infants, and rises gradually as we age. Anyone aged 13 years or older has a recommended daily allowance of 4,500mg per day.

Women who are pregnant do not need to consume more than this daily, but women who are breastfeeding are recommended a slightly higher daily allowance 5,100mg per day. It is estimated that less than half of all Americans get the recommended amount of potassium each day.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Much Of It?

Too much potassium in your body results in a condition referred to as hyperkalemia. Hyperkalemia can cause nausea and vomiting. If left unaddressed the condition can worsen and cause nerve problems that present as fatigue, weakness, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and in extreme cases, can prevent your lungs from functioning, causing you to be unable to breathe without the assistance of a machine.

To avoid hyperkalemia, it is recommended that you speak to a doctor before consuming potassium supplements unless you have been told by a doctor that you already are suffering from a true deficiency. The supplements on top of a diet already sufficiently rich in potassium may not be a good combination.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Little Of It?

Hypokalemia, or low potassium in the blood, can cause weakness, fatigue, dizziness, constipation, muscle cramps, and an irregular heartbeat. Irregular heartbeat for any reason is a major concern; more so in anyone with preexisting heart problems as this further increases your risk for heart attack.

Extremely low levels of potassium in the body can be caused by a variety of conditions other than simply not eating enough potassium. If you are admitted to the hospital for this condition, the doctor will likely try to figure out why your potassium is so low, and then treat that cause rather than simply supplementing you with additional potassium. This method of treatment help prevent hypokalemia from being a recurring problem for patients.

Final Take

Hopefully now you understand a bit better the exact role potassium plays in our health. That it isn’t important just for athletes or your cousin who works out for five hours every day. Making sure that you’re getting enough potassium can help to keep you feeling your best.


[1] Wikipedia. Electrolyte. Wikipedia.com, 2017.

[2] University of Maryland Medical Center. Potassium. University of Maryland, 2015.

[3] Muller, Lauren. RDA For Potassium. Livestrong.com, 2014.