December 3, 2023

  • A new study found eating a potassium-rich diet may improve heart health, specifically for women with high sodium intake.
  • Researchers found for every gram of potassium consumed daily, systolic blood pressure was lowered by 2.4 mmHg.
  • Experts suggest incorporating more potassium-rich foods into your diet, like bananas, potatoes, beans, and spinach.

Researchers have known for a while that a diet high in potassium can help lower blood pressure and risk for cardiovascular disease, but a new study published in the European Heart Journal found that a potassium-rich diet can specifically help women improve their heart health.

The new study determined that the more grams of potassium consumed per day, the more the blood pressure of women who consumed high amounts of sodium improved. In fact, scientists found that for each additional gram of potassium consumed daily, systolic blood pressure was lowered by 2.4 mmHg. In short: as potassium levels went up in the diet, sodium levels went down in the blood.

The research examined how potassium impacted the blood pressure of nearly 25,000 participants. Of those in the study, about 55% were women and 45% were men and their data came from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer-Norfolk study. Participants were from the United Kingdom and between the ages of 40 to 79 years old from 1993 to 1997.

Participants filled out a lifestyle questionnaire and had their blood pressure taken and urine sampled by researchers. Urine samples were examined for sodium and potassium levels. But the benefits weren’t just seen in women. Researchers followed up with participants after a median of 20 years and found that women who had the highest intake of potassium had an 11% lower risk of hospitalization or death due to cardiovascular disease and men lowered their risk by 7% compared to those with the lowest potassium intake.

What experts have to say

Howard Weintraub, M.D., cardiologist and clinical director of the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Health says that the idea of potassium lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease and improving heart health and blood pressure isn’t anything new. What makes this study so impressive is that it included a huge cohort and they found a very significant change through their data, especially in women, he says.

Dr. Weintraub notes that the main limitation in this study, which the authors recognize, is that only one urine sample was collected per participant. He notes that sodium and potassium in the urine can fluctuate. For example, if you ate a plant-based meal with very limited salt versus a takeout hamburger with salty fries, it can impact the total amount of sodium and potassium in your urine.

But the main question experts still have is—why women? The study found the strongest association between lowering blood pressure and an increase in potassium intake for women who consumed high amounts of sodium. They did not find the same for men, and experts are still scratching their heads.

“It’s thought-provoking and hypothesis-provoking, but the fact that it has this unusual, more restricted relationship raises questions in my mind,” Dr. Weintraub says. He notes that the study authors offer a few ideas as to why this is, but the bottom line is that they don’t really know.

In the study, experts reference research done on rats where the female sex hormone (estrogen) likely played a part in the role of potassium in their overall health. But, studies on rats don’t always equate to human circumstances, Dr. Weintraub says. Additionally, the researchers note that many of the women involved in the study were postmenopausal, so other mechanisms may be playing a role in this case.

The bottom line

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, causing one in four deaths in men and one in five deaths in women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Additionally, many experts point to a diet high in sodium and processed foods as risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

This particular study suggests that eating more potassium can help the kidneys get rid of sodium in the blood, which can help blood pressure go down. If you can maintain lower blood pressure long-term, there can be a change in cardiovascular risk, Dr. Weintraub says.

“As a prevention specialist in the cardiovascular arena, we’ve always talked about limiting sodium intake, that has been an unambiguous issue,” he says. “The diet we encourage is the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to save lives.”

If you’re looking for ways to lower your blood pressure naturally, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about the possible causes of your high blood pressure to create a plan that works for you. A diet that incorporates foods that help lower blood pressure naturally, can be key in realizing your target numbers.

Research has shown eating a wider variety of proteins may lower the risk of high blood pressure. Additionally, high-potassium foods can be an integral part of your diet plan, like white and sweet potatoes, bananas, beets, spinach, beans, and avocado.

Lastly, Dr. Weintraub warns to be cautious of consuming too much potassium in your diet, because it can impact kidney function and become very dangerous.

So, it’s important to consult your doctor before drastically increasing your potassium intake. And, these findings mean that adding a bit more into your routine could prove beneficial to heart health.

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