Potassium is to your body what your smartphone is to your everyday life: this essential mineral does dozens of vital jobs, and you’d literally die without it. New research has revealed yet another one of those jobs is keeping your arteries nice and supple.
For a study published in the journal JCI Insights, investigators from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) fed specially bred mice diets with varying levels of potassium.
Those mice on low-potassium diets later proved to have a significant increase in “vascular calcification” — aka hardening of the arteries. Their aortas, the artery flowing out of the heart, showed particularly increased stiffness.
Conversely, mice on high-potassium diets had less vascular calcification and decreased stiffness in their aortas.
In humans, stiff arteries translate to a higher risk of heart disease (which is the leading cause of death in Australia).
“The findings have important translational potential, since they demonstrate the benefit of adequate potassium supplementation on prevention of vascular calcification in atherosclerosis-prone mice, and the adverse effect of low potassium intake,” study co-author Dr Paul Sanders, a UAB professor, in a statement.
In everyday language, that means increasing the amount of potassium you get from your diet will reduce your odds of heart disease.
Luckily, potassium isn’t too hard to come by — UAB highlighted potassium-rich foods including bananas, avocados, baked potato, spinach, milk and artichokes.
Another of potassium’s vital roles is managing blood pressure by counterbalancing sodium, which is thought to contribute to hypertension.
Interestingly, there’s a reason humans have insatiable, irresistible cravings for sodium-rich salty foods, but have no corresponding craving for potassium. (Literally no-one ever lusted after a banana’s potassium tang.)
According to the University of Southern California, it’s because humans’ ancestors ate diets high in potassium (lots of fruit, roots, vegetables, beans and grains) but high in sodium. So we evolved to desire sodium, but not potassium — despite both being equally important for good health.