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Jul 19, 2011

A Measured Approach: Sodium, Potassium, and Heart Disease

Learn why balancing sodium and potassium promotes heart health.

Doctors recommend that adults consume less than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium and at least 2,000–3,000 mg of potassium daily. Why? High sodium levels can increase blood pressure and lead to hypertension — a significant risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Potassium, on the other hand, is an essential nutrient that helps organs, including the heart, to function properly and may help counteract the effects of high sodium levels on the body. For this reason, doctors have begun to further investigate the joint relationship between sodium and potassium intake levels on heart health. Are those ingesting high sodium levels and low potassium levels at higher risk for heart disease than those with just one of these dietary behaviors?

A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that this may be the case. In a study involving over 12,000 participants, researchers surveyed U.S. adults over the course of nearly 15 years to track their sodium and potassium intake and health, among other factors. Results from this study reconfirm what some studies have previously shown — that, independently, high sodium or low potassium intake increases risk for heart disease and death. Most importantly, however, this study also showed that a higher sodium-potassium ratio can increase risk for heart disease and all-cause mortality even more than just having either high sodium or low potassium intake.

Unfortunately, most Americans exceed sodium guidelines and do not get enough potassium each day. This combination can be extremely risky for cardiovascular and overall health. So how can adults minimize health risks associated with high sodium and low potassium intake? By following the new sodium guidelines, recommending less than 1,500 mg of sodium each day, and keeping potassium intake up, as it is an essential nutrient to the body. Although it is important for your cardiovascular health to follow both recommendations, be sure to follow at least one. By doing so, you can help reduce your sodium-potassium ratio and risk for heart disease. 

Questions for You to Consider

  • How does high sodium intake increase risk for heart disease?
  • High sodium levels increase blood pressure by stiffening the walls of the arteries, making the heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body. If a diet is consistently high in sodium, these effects can lead to hypertension, a significant risk factor for heart disease. The DASH diet provides guidance for reducing your sodium intake.
  • What foods are low in sodium and high in potassium?
  • Most fruits, vegetables and dairy products have a low sodium-potassium ratio, meaning they are good sources of potassium without high levels of salt. Processed foods, on the other hand, are often high in sodium and contain less potassium.

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