Live Heart Healthy. Live Well & Live Long

Sodium/Potassium Balance

by | Jun 5, 2013

Americans are not only eating too much salt, the adverse effects of adding salt to our food are made worse by an inadequate amount of potassium in our diet. This concept has been around for several decades. Dr. Lewis K. Dahl’s experiments on rats at the Brookhaven National Lab showed that high blood pressure response to a salty diet can be reduced in many different ways. While most of us realize that  the pharmaceutical agents in our medicine cabinet often help on that front, Dr. Dahl was among the first scientists to report that rat’s diet rich in potassium lessened the high blood pressure response.

To explain the role potassium plays in our diet, let me tell a story from my childhood days:

A king who once ruled Southern India  was in search of the right person to assume the role of Prime Minister. This position called for a special individual who could advise the king in all matters of the state, as well as being his personal confidante. Given the importance of the role this person needed to play, the king—reputed to be wise, benevolent and intelligent—devised a plan to find the most deserving person in he land. He had his solders carry a plaque to every nook and cranny of his kingdom. The inscription on the plaque, which showed a simple drawn line, read: Make this line smaller without altering it

The king’s soldiers carried this plaque all over the kingdom, to town after town and village after village. Nobody could figure out a way to make the line on the plaque smaller without touching or altering it in some way. The soldiers had pretty much given up all hope. When they came to a primary school in a small village, the teacher of the school rebuked the soldiers and called the king a few choice words. 

“The king has gone crazy”, the teacher screamed, echoing the sentiments of many of his countrymen. “How can anybody make this line smaller without touching it?”

The soldiers, who had already gotten used to it this type of reaction, did not respond to the challenge.  

Suddenly, a student in this small school in this remote village mustered enough courage to say, “I can solve the puzzle”. Before the teacher could stop him, he took a piece of chalk, walked up to the plaque and drew a long line just below the existing line on the plaque.  “There, the king’s line is now smaller,” the boy announced.

To make the long story short, the child went on become the prime minister. Many stories of the escapades of this popular king and this prime minister duo are still told to this day.In much the same way, the impact of salt (the king’s line) can be reduced by adding potassium. We’re not exactly sure why potassium lessens the impact of salt on blood pressure, but we do know that consuming salt without eating potassium-rich foods leads to greater salt-inflicted damage on our body’s systems. For more information about the connection between salt and potassium, check our blog post about raisins and salt.

But here is the catch. You cannot simply add potassium to your food just like you can add salt. Potassium, even in small amounts, is deadly.  We as heart surgeons work with potassium every day. Potassium is what we give to stop the heart so that we can do the repairs on the heart. The prison system uses potassium to put the death row inmates to permanent sleep.  So even though pills with small doses of potassium are often prescribed to people on diuretic pills to control high blood pressure, don’t go using your uncle’s potassium pill to make up for the salty pizza you just ate. You may not see tomorrow.  

The best—and the only—way to give your body enough potassium is to consume foods that actually supply you with potassium on a daily basis. Those include a variety of berries, salt-free nuts, dates and bananas. The natural foods we are meant to consume have the correct proportion of sodium and potassium.  

Here is a novel idea. If you don’t add any salt to your food, the balance of salts in your body takes care of itself. How about that!


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