Millennials, you have stumbled upon the strongest comeback to defend your avocado toast craze! An unprecedented study has found that foods rich in potassium, such as avocados and bananas, can help prevent pathogenic vascular calcification, keeping arteries free of blockage. Researchers, led by Yabing Chen, Ph.D., professor of pathology at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), looked into how potassium affects aortic stiffness.
When trouble starts in the heart
With heart disease leading as the cause of death for approximately 610,000 people in America each year, it is time to open our eyes to the UAB study. Calcification, or buildup of calcium in tissue, organs, and blood vessels, can harden the body’s normal processes, disrupting proper function. Such disruption is a leading complication in heart disease (ndtv). More so, the findings we will uncover in a moment are not ones to overlook.
Potassium is a crucial mineral for all of our cells, tissues, and organs to function properly. It is especially important to a healthy heart, smooth muscle contraction, and correct nerve function (University of Maryland Medical Center, medicalnewstoday). While people need the mineral, we must be careful. There is such a thing as having too much potassium in the body. This is called hyperkalemia. Contrarily, having too little is called hypokalemia. Potassium balance depends on our intake of magnesium and sodium, as a sodium overload may call for more potassium. This sodium overload can be associated with Western diets, to which America’s fast food menu may be attributed. Meanwhile, diarrhea, malnutrition, vomiting, excessive sweating, and malabsorption syndromes can lead to a potassium deficiency (UMMC). Too much of this mineral does not necessarily mean we are ingesting too many potassium-rich foods—age plays a role. As we age, our kidneys’ ability to reduce potassium weakens, putting our bodies at risk for hyperkalemia. This is why we must take caution as we age and take meds that affect potassium levels (UMMC).
The never-before-done study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI), was conducted on apolipoprotein E-deficient mice—mice prone to cardiovascular disease. The amounts of potassium fed to these mice were diversified from low to high and allotted based on a weight/weight scale. Low (0.3%), normal (0.7%), high (2.1%). (news-medical). The researchers found that the mice fed a low-potassium diet had a significant increase in vascular calcification, while mice fed a high-potassium diet had a significant decrease in vascular calcification. Measured by echocardiography in live animals, the low-potassium mice had higher stiffness of their aortas, while high-potassium mice had less stiffness.
Why does stiffness matter? Because the stiffer artery walls become, the harder it is for the heart to pump blood throughout the body (ndtv). Atherosclerosis, the name of this hardening and narrowing of arteries because of the buildup of cholesterol plaque, causes diseases such as angina, carotid artery disease, and peripheral artery disease (American Heart Association).
Back to the study
Paul Sanders, MD, professor of nephrology in the UAB Department of Medicine and co-author, commented “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” (nutraceuticalsworld).
The University of Alabama at Birmingham also observed the vascular effects of potassium intake on a molecular level. Low levels of the mineral in a cell culture evidently fortified calcification of vascular smooth muscle cells. Why is this important? Because past research showed that calcification of vascular smooth muscle cells resembles the differentiation of bone cells, leading to the conversion of smooth muscle cells into bone-like cells. Having found this new information on top of the old, the researchers examined the growth of vascular smooth muscle cells in low-potassium cell culture, finding that the low-potassium conditions “triggered the expression of several gene markers that are characteristic of bone cells while inhibiting the expression of vascular smooth muscle cell markers” (earth). This implies that low-potassium intakes promote the transformation of the vascular smooth muscle cells into bone-like cells (earth).
More Proof of Potassium Power
A 10-year study at Boston University observed the dietary habits of 2,185 girls 9-10 years old. Girls who had high levels of potassium were found to have had lower blood pressure throughout adolescence than girls who were deficient in the mineral.
How is this so?
Researcher Alicia McDonough of the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California reports “When dietary potassium is high, kidneys excrete more salt and water, which increases potassium excretion. Eating a high potassium diet is like taking a diuretic” (newsmax).
In addition to potassium supplements, one of the many manufactured by Makers Nutrition, foods with high potassium contents include but are not limited to: bananas, avocados, leafy greens, potatoes, carrots, grapefruit, and oranges (UMMC, medicalnewstoday).
So millennials, eat that avocado with pride—you might just be saving your own life!
Disclaimer: To learn about your potassium levels, and before taking potassium supplements, contact a certified physician.