Why Is Potassium Important to Neural Function?

Low potassium levels can contribute to headache.

Low potassium levels can contribute to headache.

While you may not think about potassium too much, you might start giving thanks for it when you find out how much it does for your body. Potassium is vital to your brain function, and without enough potassium, you wouldn't be able to think as clearly. If you eat a healthy diet filled with fruits, whole grains and vegetables, you likely get enough potassium to feed your cells and brain. If you don’t, adding some potassium-rich choices in your diet can truly act as “brain” food.

The Sodium/Potassium Pump

While you can’t plug yourself in to re-charge, your brain and body do run on electricity. Potassium is an electrolyte, or electrically charged particle, which is found mostly inside your cells. Your cells have little gateways where potassium can flow out and sodium temporarily flows in. This generates an electrical charge that pushes electrical or neural impulses along your nerves to your brain. This exchange of potassium and sodium is known as the sodium-potassium pump and is necessary for your nerves and muscles work properly.

Neural Conduction

Think of the process of sending a message to and from your brain as a telephone call. If your hand nears a hot stove, the sensors in your fingers can tell a surface is too hot to touch and then sends a message to your brain. Your cells exchange sodium and potassium across your nerves until the message gets to your brain. Your brain responds by signaling your muscles to jerk away so your hand stays away the hot surface. If you don’t have enough potassium in your body, the message could have difficulty reaching your brain and back to your arm and hand. So, potassium impairment is like the equivalent of a phone line that has a lot of static or has been cut completely.

Baylor Research Study

A 2010 study from the Baylor College of Medicine published in the “Nature Neuroscience” journal illustrates just how important potassium is to neural function. The researchers studied mice and how altering potassium gateways in their brains affected them. When researchers blocked potassium from entering and exiting the cells, the mice experienced seizures. Though more studies are needed, the researchers theorized these findings could give future clues about treatments for epilepsy and seizure disorder .

Healthy Choices

To keep your brain and nerves working at their best, it’s important to take in enough potassium in your daily diet. Young adult women need 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. The good news is most foods high in potassium are a nutritionist’s dream because they’re also packed with other nutrients and low in calories. Foods high in potassium include spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, bananas, oranges, cantaloupes and kiwi fruits.

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About the Author

Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.

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