Potassium garners far less fanfare than nutritional superstars such as calcium and iron, but this under-hyped mineral does your body a whole lot of good. Most adult women need the same amount of potassium as men: 4,700 mg per day. Pregnant women don't need extra doses, but breastfeeding women do -- if you're nursing, aim for 5,100 mg daily. Adequate potassium intake is especially important for women because it may help promote healthy bones, fighting debilitating osteoporosis in old age.
Potassium is an electrolyte, which is a fancy term for substances that conduct electricity in your body. Promoting fluid retention and electrolyte balance, potassium is vital for a healthy heart as well as smooth muscle contraction. A healthy, varied diet should provide all of the potassium you need unless you have a medical condition that affects your levels. Bananas are famous for high potassium levels, but baked potatoes, white beans, edamame and yogurt have even more. Other potassium sources include spinach, tomato products, fish, lentils and orange juice.
Potassium deficiency, called hypokalemia, is bad news for your heart. Most cases stem from potassium loss through the digestive system, and the condition can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms include low energy, weakness and heart beat irregularities. Even if you don't have hypokalemia, your body will suffer from inadequate dietary potassium. Low levels are linked to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease -- the top killer of women and men. During pregnancy, it's especially important to get enough potassium and other electrolytes. If your legs cramp, low levels could be to blame.
You're probably not going to OD on potassium by pigging out on potatoes, or even by overdoing the multivitamins. It rarely happens, but retaining too much of this nutrient can cause dangerous irregular heartbeats. High potassium, called hyperkalemia, typically stems from medical conditions that prevent proper expulsion, such as kidney failure. Medications such as ACE inhibitors and potassium-sparing diuretics, as well as major infections, can also cause hyperkalemia.
Hands down, a healthy diet wins over supplements. If you must take potassium pills, consult a physician to discuss safety, dosing and potential drug reactions. Potassium supplements interact with a long list of medicines, from asthma drugs to laxatives. At the store, look for "USP Verified" on the label, which indicates that the product meets U.S. Pharmacopeia standards.
Nina K. is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been published by USAToday.com, Fitday.com, Healthy Living Magazine, Organic Authority and numerous other print and web publications. She has a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism certificate from UCLA.