Blood Pressure, Potassium, and Sodium

High blood pressure results from many factors, but there’s always one common denominator: excessive salt and an incorrect balance between sodium and potassium. You must understand these two minerals.

Potassium and sodium are the body’s two major electrolytes, nutrients essential for nerve conduction, energy production, cell integrity, and many other functions of the body. Both conduct electricity.

Salt, sodium chloride, dissolves to form the electrolytes sodium and chloride. Pure distilled water does not conduct electricity, but water containing salt does because sodium and chloride are ions, each containing an electric charge.

Each body cell in every tissue and organ is composed of and bathed in fluid. The fluid both inside and outside the cell contains many materials; most important among them are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride.

The intracellular fluid contains more potassium than sodium, so potassium is the predominant electrolyte inside the cell. Conversely, the fluid bathing the cell contains more sodium than potassium, so sodium is the predominant electrolyte in the extra-cellular fluid.

Chloride complements both electrolytes. A deficiency of either sodium or potassium is generally not an issue because we can get all we need from food. However, most people get far too much sodium from food.

Having the correct balance of potassium and sodium, or K-factor, enables cells to carry out their functions. For example, cells that line the stomach must produce acid and digestive enzymes to break down food. The production of these essential factors requires energy.

If those cells don’t have the correct potassium-sodium balance, they can’t produce those factors. Nerve impulse conduction, which causes you to pull your hand from a hot stove and “tells” your heart to beat, also requires the right ratio of sodium and potassium to function properly.

The ratio of potassium to sodium in our body is critical, and when it becomes seriously distorted, the consequences can be life threatening. Inadequate dietary potassium, often resulting from fad diets, has been implicated many times in heart attacks.

Your body maintains a ratio of about three parts potassium to one part sodium. This ratio facilitates all the many functions that each cell must perform. This ratio is not unique to humans and is found throughout the animal kingdom.

In contrast, a much higher ratio of potassium to sodium is found in the plant kingdom, 10 to 20 or more parts potassium to one part sodium.

Plants don’t have, among other things, a nervous system and the need to transmit nerve impulses and so require less sodium. This characteristic of plants is to our benefit; making vegetables a substantial part of your diet can help balance excess sodium.

Suppose the extra-cellular fluids become oversupplied with sodium. How does the body return things to normal? Initially, the body uses the kidneys to excrete excess sodium.

But suppose the kidneys don’t extract and excrete sufficient sodium from the blood? The peripheral vascular system then constricts and increases resistance to blood flow, causing the blood pressure to increase, which forces the kidneys to excrete more sodium.

Elevation of blood pressure to eliminate more sodium shouldn’t surprise anyone with engineering knowledge. Engineers do it all the time with a process called reverse osmosis. In reverse osmosis, pressure is elevated to force impurities across a membrane.

Some home water purifiers use this method to make pure, mineral-free water. Unfortunately, when the body uses this process, blood pressure can increase to a dangerous level.

Constriction of the peripheral vascular system also causes the body to retain more fluid, which dilutes the extra-cellular sodium. If the fluid around a cell has a high concentration of sodium, simply increasing fluid volume dilutes the sodium, lowering the ratio of sodium chloride to potassium.

Increasing fluid also enables the kidneys to excrete both water and sodium. The only problem is that the blood pressure is elevated to accomplish the task. Normally these two mechanisms, reverse osmosis and fluid retention, work together to return the K-factor ratio to normal.

If this elevation takes place often enough, however, the blood volume increases and the vascular system adapts and keeps the blood pressure elevated. The medical profession first used diuretics to control high blood pressure.

Diuretics cause the body to excrete more fluid and, with the fluid, sodium chloride. This method usually reduces blood pressure in its early stages.

One major drawback is that diuretics also cause the kidneys to excrete potassium, so along with diuretics, doctors often prescribe potassium supplements. The person taking them must also drink more water.

People who can correct high blood pressure with diuretics can easily solve their problem with diet. Indeed, if a diuretic works for you, control by diet alone is a certainty. Unequivocally, diet has a profound effect on the sodium-potassium balance.

Excess sodium comes from the food we eat; similarly, inadequate potassium is primarily a dietary shortfall. Around 1974, papers started appearing in medical journals indicating when the dietary potassium to sodium ratio, the K-factor, falls below 3 and drops to about 1 or even 1.5, high blood pressure increases dramatically.

African Americans are especially vulnerable to high blood pressure because of how their kidneys handle chloride. Diabetic children are also likely to get high blood pressure.

This research leaves no doubt that the dietary potassium to sodium ratio is critical and clearly indicates that the individual can control her blood pressure through the food she eats. Natural foods, particularly vegetables, contain much more potassium than sodium.

Indeed, the ratio in animal-derived foods (meat, fish, and poultry) of between 3 and 6 is low compared to vegetables, where the ratio is usually 10 or much more. Anthropologists estimate that the potassium to sodium ratio in the diet of our remote ancestors of 10,000 years ago was about 16!

Their diet was much higher in potassium than in sodium, with a K-factor of 3 or more. In contrast, people in many developed countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe, now eat a diet in which the K-factor is about 0.8.

The body must work overtime to excrete the excess sodium and retain potassium, which the body often accomplishes by, unfortunately, raising blood pressure.

Although the ratio of potassium to sodium is probably more important than the absolute amount of either, the average adult requires a minimum of about 200 or 250 milligrams of sodium daily.

That translates to 650 milligrams of salt, while the requirement for potassium is about 1,000 milligrams. Some people cannot tolerate excessive sodium (above about 1,000 milligrams daily) even if their dietary K-factor is above 2 because they develop high blood pressure.

Those numbers are minimum levels for maintaining good health, and they tell an important story: We require a lot more potassium than sodium. The Food and Nutrition Board describes a safe and adequate range as 1,100 to 3,300 milligrams of sodium and 1,875 to 5,625 milligrams of potassium.

Safe and adequate does not mean required. It means that most people who do not have high blood pressure can consume sodium in that range and remain in satisfactory health.

But to the government, satisfactory health means “free from overt symptoms,” and they established these numbers before we understood the K-factor. It is important to note that most high blood pressure goes undetected.

Some experts have proposed that the government rewrite its recommendations, proposing an upper limit of about 1,500 milligrams of sodium and a K-factor of at least 3, which means about 4,500 milligrams of potassium.

For people whose diastolic blood pressure has reached 85, their sodium limit should be reduced to 1,000 milligrams with a K-factor of 4 or more. No matter what numbers you use, the K-factor should be at least 3.

When I look at the K-factor that occurs naturally in plants, with its high ratio of potassium, I conclude that the dietary K-factor should probably be greater than 4, perhaps as high as 10.

Dietary Changes

Lay the groundwork now for your new dietary plan. One important part should be obvious: increase the potassium and decrease the sodium in your diet. Nature will do this if you give her a chance.

Unprocessed foods, especially vegetables, are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium. In contrast, many man-made, highly processed foods are exactly the opposite: high in sodium and low in potassium.

Therefore, most of these changes should be obvious.

  1. Eat one to three fresh vegetables of any type at every meal except breakfast. These include leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach), squash, tubers (potatoes), broccoli, carrots, plus a variety of other vegetables. Always boil, steam, or stiffly; never add salt.
  1. Eat whole grains and legumes (peas, beans), except black beans.
  1. Start each day with a cereal that has more potassium than sodium. Some examples include oatmeal made without salt, Nabisco Shredded Wheat Bran Buds, puffed rice, wheat germ, and Quaker 100% Natural. Always use low-fat or skim milk, or a soy beverage.
  1. Avoid processed foods that list salt as an ingredient. If you don’t read the ingredients, now is the time to start!
  1. Don’t eat any processed food that doesn’t clearly have the potassium and sodium content declared on the label. The potassium must be at least two times the sodium.
  1. Don’t eat any processed meat products, including poultry. Turkey or chicken bologna and similar products are still high in sodium.
  1. Do not use salt on any foods. This will be tough, but you can do it. Alternatives are a hot pepper sauce such as Tabasco, horseradish, or salt substitutes. Herbs, spices, onions, and garlic go well with meat. Mrs. Dash’s non-salt herbs and spices are excellent.
  1. For dessert, eat fresh fruit whenever possible. You can also eat ice cream, ice milk, and sherbet but avoid baked goods, pies, or cakes.
  1. Purchase a low-sodium cookbook. Start using it for recipes.

Some of these changes might be contrary to the way you have been eating, taken together, but they are a first, giant step toward reducing your blood pressure. More than that, once they become a habit, you will be on your way to optimizing your health.