Sodium vs. Potassium

saltbananaSodium and potassium are electrolytes necessary for the regulation of blood and other fluids. They play a major role in blood pressure by stimulating the action of muscular activity, proper gland function and heart activity. They are also really important for maintaining what is called the electrochemical gradients. Sodium is essential for hydration because it pumps water into your cells. Potassium functions in the pumping of byproducts or waste products out of the cell. They really serve as the body’s fluid regulator and waste product regulator.

What is Sodium?

Sodium is a mineral that is vital to maintain the fluid balance of our body.  While excessive sodium has negative effects on one’s health, so does not having enough in your diet. Most people unfortunately do not pay attention to the amount of sodium in their diet or even know what the daily recommended intake is.  It is recommended that most people consume a minimum of 500 mg of sodium per day while, according to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, should not exceed 2,300 mg of sodium per day. However, they also note that people who have conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or chronic kidney disease, or are African American or older than 50 should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.  The sad fact is that the Average American consumes an average of 3,500 mg per day.

Excessive Sodium:

Salt, which is sodium chloride, has long been linked to high blood pressure, or hypertension, which afflicts nearly one in three Americans, and is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.   Blood pressure is the measure of the force of blood against artery walls and when it rises too high, the pressure causes damage to many organs, including heart, kidneys, brain, and even eyes. Independent studies have been shown that if the current trend continues it is predicted by 2025, 60% of Americans will have high blood pressure.  While salt isn’t the only cause of high blood pressure (lack of exercise, poor diets, and inherited risk also contribute) Americans consume way too much salt on a daily basis because of their excessive consumption of processed foods.  Other studies have confirmed the benefits of a low-sodium diet, for example, in a 2003 report that pooled results from a variety of research trials around the world, scientists showed that reducing sodium intake by 1,000 mg a day lowers systolic blood pressure by an average of 4 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 2.5 mm Hg in patients with hypertension. Easing off salt reduced blood pressure even in people with what’s considered normal pressure. High blood pressure is a major factor for heart disease and stroke is the number one & fourth leading causes of death in America.

Sodium Deficiency:

Reducing sodium too much or eliminating it completely from your diet can lead to a condition called Hyponatremia, which is a lower-than-normal concentration of sodium in the blood, caused by inadequate excretion of water or by excessive water in the circulating bloodstream. In a severe case the person may experience water intoxication, with confusion and lethargy, leading to muscle excitability, convulsions, and coma. Fluid and electrolyte balance may be restored by IV infusion of a balanced solution or a fluid-restricted diet. Someone experiencing a mild case of sodium deficiency may not exhibit any symptoms. More advanced cases may lead to fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. If a person experiencing sodium deficiency begins vomiting, the disease accelerates much quicker, due to the electrolyte imbalances that occur when sick. In severe cases of sodium deficiency, the symptoms are mostly neurological. They include confusion, the loss of reflexive movement, convulsions, and, eventually, a coma.  Sodium deficiencies can also lead to weight loss, low blood pressure, seizures, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, diarrhea, and muscular irritability.

In some cases, athletes, particularly distance athletes, develop water intoxication while competing and is most common in marathon runners. The runner, in his or her quest to remain hydrated, drinks so much water that the levels of sodium in the blood are diluted.  To avoid the risk of water intoxication, athletes can alternate drinking water with sports drinks while running, or use sports gels or other electrolyte replacement supplements. It is important to try the electrolyte supplementation products you plan to use before race day. Many people drink one particular brand of supplement during their training runs and using a different brand of sports drink on race day can lead to an upset stomach. Lack of proper sodium levels can also lead to muscle cramping so extreme athletes often carry salt packs with them in an effort to avoid this.

Health Benefits of Sodium:

Sodium plays a major part in maintaining the health and development of the brain. Low levels or decreased levels of sodium can cause confusion and lethargy.  Sodium is mostly found in extracellular fluid and plays an important part in enzymatic activities.  It controls these levels by pumping water in the cell and maintains a balance between chlorides and bicarbonate ions thus regulating the positively and negatively charged ions in the body.  Sodium helps the body retain water and prevents dehydration which can result in muscle cramping due to an imbalance of electrolytes.  In addition, sodium can help with skin health and fight signs of aging by fighting free radicals formed in the skin as well as preventing sunstroke by replacing essential electrolytes lost during when the skin is exposed to sun.  While too much or too little can affect our heart negatively, the proper balance of sodium aids with the muscle contractions of the heart and controls blood pressure and assists the body in the removal of excess carbon dioxide that has accumulated within the body.

Common Sources of Sodium:

Sodium content in food can vary significantly. Processed foods have the highest amounts followed by foods we consume in restaurants.  For example, a typical can of soup has between 800-1000 mg of sodium per serving and the average 18 oz. can is 2 servings.  Frozen dinners have on average between 350-750 mg of sodium.  Opt for lower sodium versions of these products or eliminate them completely from your diet.

Common sources of sodium:


What is Potassium?

Potassium is an essential mineral and just like sodium, it binds readily with other minerals, and does not occur naturally in an unbound state. Potassium is required for the proper functioning of many major organ systems. Potassium is essential for the heart, kidneys, muscles, nerves, and digestive system to operate normally, and is required for regulating fluid balance, the body’s acid-base balance, and blood pressure.  Potassium ions are necessary for the function of all living cells. Potassium ion diffusion is a key mechanism in nerve transmission, and potassium depletion in animals, including humans, results in various cardiac dysfunctions. It is a critical electrolyte that allows our muscles to move, our nerves to fire, and our kidneys to filter blood. The right balance of potassium literally allows the heart to beat. If potassium levels get too high or too low, the heart and nervous system completely shut down.  The recommended amount for adults is 4700 milligrams so as you can see you need much more potassium than sodium daily. Unfortunately, many Americans fail to regularly eat fresh fruits and vegetables while eating heavily salted prepared foods so meeting the required potassium intake can be difficult.

Excessive Potassium:

People with kidney problems, especially those on dialysis, should not eat too many potassium-rich foods. Too much potassium in the blood is known as hyperkalemia. It may cause abnormal and dangerous heart rhythms.  Early symptoms of hyperkalemia include irritability, abdominal cramps and muscle weakness, which could lead to impaired movement of the arms and legs. In early stages of hyperkalemia, an irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations typically occur first. If left untreated, impulse conduction within the heart becomes more difficult, resulting in a dangerously slow heart rate. This slow heart rate could quickly evolve dangerous ventricular conditions could potentially lead to a cardiac arrest. In addition, if the kidneys are not effective enough to eliminate the excess potassium, blood levels can become dangerously high.  When the body becomes too acidic or suffers tremendous injury, an influx of potassium is released from the cells into the bloodstream. Drug abuse, hemolytic anemia, diabetic ketoacidosis, severe gastrointestinal bleeding or severe burns on large areas of the body can also increase potassium in the body.

Potassium Deficiency:

Potassium deficiency symptoms include irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness and mood changes, as well as nausea and vomiting. People with kidney disease, gastrointestinal disease and those who take diuretics may have lower levels of potassium.  Low blood level of potassium is called hypokalemia. It can cause weak muscles, abnormal heart rhythms, and a slight rise in blood pressure. You may have hypokalemia if you take diuretics (water pills) for the treatment of high blood pressure or heart failure, take too many laxatives, have severe or prolonged vomiting and diarrhea, or have certain kidney or adrenal gland disorders  A more common reason to see low potassium levels is in people suffering from acute or chronic diarrhea. People with ongoing gastrointestinal illness may need to be careful to maintain normal potassium levels. .  Fluid loss can lead to problematic loss of potassium and is more common in people undergoing heavy physical training or who work outdoors on a hot day.

Health Benefits of Potassium:

Your body needs potassium to build proteins, break down and use carbohydrates, build muscle, maintain normal body growth, control the electrical activity of the heart, and control the acid-base balance of the body.  Diets high in potassium are associated with improved blood pressure control. There are several mechanisms contributing to this beneficial effect, including improved kidney function, reduction in blood clotting, and more efficient opening of blood vessels. Diets rich in potassium have been also been shown to reduce the risk of getting kidney stones. This is thought to be because the naturally occurring potassium salts in plant foods help to neutralize acidity in the blood stream which prevents leaching of calcium from the bones to buffer the acid, which in turn reduces urine calcium, preventing its deposition in the form of a stone.

Common sources of Potassium:


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