I came across this amazing link between potassium and insulin when I was researching root causes of hypertension. I have to admit I never paid much attention to importance of potassium. Magnesium and zinc were my ‘number one’ minerals. However, It turned out that potassium deserves some more attention too and here’s why:
What potassium does
Potassium is known as an electrolyte responsible for muscle contraction and maintaining appropriate heartbeat. It sounds pretty basic and probably that’s why role of potassium is a bit underestimated. When we deep dive into how potassium influences hormones and various processes in the body we will come to the conclusion that potassium is actually pretty important mineral too and it plays big role in metabolic disorders. I was really amazed when I discovered how potassium is linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Potassium balance – are sodium and glucose the bad guys?
It’s not even only about overall potassium levels in the body but also about potassium balance between inside and outside of the cell and potassium level in relation to sodium. Generally speaking potassium balance is maintained if we have more potassium inside the cell than outside the cell (blood serum i.e). Plus when the potassium to sodium ratio is at optimal level. Consuming too much sodium and not enough potassium will deplete your cell potassium. These two minerals are antagonists, similar like zinc and copper. High sugar diet also releases potassium from the cell. As just mentioned, the balance is maintained if have more potassium inside the cell, not outside.
So how does it work and link to stress hormone cortisol?
So let’s take a closer look at this. If the cell potassium levels decrease, a hormone angiotensin II is activated. It also triggers cortisol release. Cortisol is a stress, fight or flight hormone and it raises blood sugar levels. Beta cells (that are also dependent on potassium) release insulin to take the glucose from the blood to the cell. Then it can be burnt by mitochondria for energy. Everything works well if it’s a temporary situation and there is actual demand on energy or actual danger. I.e if we exercise or run from the lion. Glucose release to the blood can be used to generate energy. Everything should be back in balance after we finish working out or running from a lion. However, if we are just sitting and stressing about deadlines, bills to pay or other things all the time, we don’t really need much of the extra glucose and the whole insulin – cell signaling mechanism can be impaired.
What can go wrong?
The problem starts if the elevated levels of cortisol became chronic. Our body will produce more and more insulin to take the excess glucose from the blood to the cells. However, if cells don’t need more glucose, they will refuse to take it. At some point, cells will become less and less sensitive to insulin and stop responding to it. Insulin will be produced to remove glucose from the blood. However, cells will stop accepting it if they don’t need it. Chronically elevated blood sugar levels may be because of too much sugars and carbohydrates in a diet. It could be also because of too frequent eating and eating inappropriate foods. This is one of the main mechanisms behind developing insulin resistance.
What else you should now?
It’s worth to mention that high sugar and carbohydrates diet depletes potassium from the cell too. Glucose triggers potassium release from the cell to the blood. In other words, it causes further loss of potassium. To maintain appropriate insulin metabolism and blood pressure as well, we need more potassium. However, we need more potasssium in the cell, not in the blood. It’s a bit of vicious cycle as low potassium can be contributing factor to developing insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is linked to increased magnesium loss and magnesium is one of the key minerals responsible for cellular uptake of potassium. I knew that we need more zinc when we consume lots of sugars but I was pretty surprised when I discovered the link between potassium and insulin. Honestly, I always assocaited potassium as ‘hypertension’ mineral.
So what we can do about it?
- Include potassium rich foods on daily basis. Daily requirement for potassium for average adult is around 4500mg.
- Ensure appropriate intake of potassium when consuming more salt as excess salt depletes potassium
- Reduce stress
- Control your blood sugar through appropriate diet and lifestyle.
- Take into account increased potassium loss with sweat during exercise. Apparently we are losing around 50 mcg of iodine and 250mg of potassium during 1h of intense training.
Potassium rich foods:
- Sun-dried tomatoes (100g) – 1560mg
- Beet greens (cooked, 1 cup) 1300mg
- Avocado (1 medium)
- Salmon (6oz filet) 1060mg
- Swiss Chard (cooked, 1 cup) 960mg
- Lima/butter beans (cooked, 1 cup) 950mg
- Potatoes (1 medium) 920mg
- Spinach (cooked, 1 cup) 839mg
- Navy beans (cooked, 1 cup) 700mg
- White button mushrooms (cooked, 1 cup) 550mg
- Kiwi (1 cup) 560mg
- Coconut water (1 cup) 500mg
- Sweet potatoes (mashed, 1 cup) 500mg
- Banana (1medium) 420mg
If you are not big fan of beet greens i.e or struggle to fit enough potassium in your regular meals, making a smoothie can be a good alternative to smuggle more of potassium rich fruits & veggies:)