An essential mineral that greatly aids the body's growth and recovery, potassium plays a starring role in a balanced diet

It regulates blood pressure, controls muscle contractions and keeps the kidneys healthy--and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Potassium provides the body with many a health benefit.

"It is one of the essential nutrients required for survival," says Meghna Rajpurohit, Director, Nutrition & Dietetics at Truworth Health Technologies Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai. "There is substantial clinical evidence showing that low potassium intake results in an increase in blood pressure, salt sensitivity and consequently puts you at higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Recent studies have linked potassium deficiency to a higher incidence of diabetes as well. Another large study has found that low dietary potassium increases the risk of Metabolic Syndrome (which is also associated with development of Type 2 diabetes)."

Reduces blood pressure

According to a study conducted by the WHO earlier this year, it was established that people are currently taking too much sodium (salt) and too less potassium in their diets. The WHO potassium study analyzed data on potassium intake and health, collected from trials involving over 128,000 healthy participants. Researchers established that increasing potassium intake reduced blood pressure in adults without adversely affecting blood cholesterol levels, hormonal levels or compromising on kidney function. Potassium may also have beneficial effects on blood pressure in children, but the study concluded that more data was needed on this aspect.

Lowers risk of insulin resistance and prevents stroke

Though a potassium-rich diet has been found especially beneficial for women, experts warn that there isn't enough evidence to prove that taking a potassium supplement can actually delay the onset of diabetes. At best, it can lower the risk of developing insulin resistance, (a condition in which your pancreas secretes a sufficient amount of insulin, but which is of no use to you because your cells become resistant to it, eventually rendering you a diabetic). "People with diabetes should include potassium-rich foods in their diet as there is indisputable evidence of its role in prevention of stroke," says Rajpurohit. The WHO study found that it significantly lowers risk of stroke for non-diabetics as well by as much as 24%. "To avail of these benefits, 50g of Banana (half of a regular golden banana) can be eaten by a person with diabetes," she says.

Improves your athletic ability

"Potassium also plays a key role in cardiac, skeletal, and smooth muscle contraction, making it an important nutrient for normal heart, digestive, and muscular function," says Rohini Saran Nutritional Consultant at the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD), New Delhi. "It also promotes cellular growth and this helps in the repair of the cells. " If you're an athlete or want to improve your fitness, you should ensure that you are getting optimal levels of potassium. "It also is required for the process of formation of glucose from glycogen which is useful in the release of energy for the body. These are energy nutrients for intense muscle activity. Moreover since there is excess loss of sodium and potassium via sweat, frequent replenishment is necessary," says Saran.

Protects your heart

By regulating blood pressure, potassium plays a role in protecting the health of your heart.

"Potassium can control elevated blood pressure by contributing to more flexible arteries, and by helping the body get rid of excess sodium (salt). Sodium promotes fluid retention, which may result in higher blood pressure," says Saran.

Cues from your kitchen

It's preferable to get your quota of K from natural sources. "For potassium rich foods, seek out dark green leafy vegetables, milk and its products, potatoes, whole dals and legumes, millets, coconut water," says Rajpurohit. You may be surprised by the fact that fruits like sweet lime, musk melon, mango, sapota, plums have more than twice the level of potassium than the average banana, which has always been considered a treasure trove of the nutrient. Other good sources of potassium are cowpea, moong dal, sweet potato, brinjal, peaches, pears, guava, milk, curd, cheese and poultry.

"Include legumes, pulses and whole grain products abundantly in your diet," says Rajpurohit. "You should have at least 4 to 6 servings of fruits and vegetables to get your quota of potassium."

"A normal adult requires about 2.5-3.3 g of potassium. Inclusion of fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and dairy products in the body will help increase the potassium content in the body," says Saran.

However, one should never take a potassium supplement without a physician's guidance. "An excess of potassium may lead to hyperkalaemia--a potentiality life threatening condition caused by the inability of the kidneys to excrete potassium." The condition can give rise to an abnormal heart beat (arrhythmia).

Tell tale signs and symptoms

One of the most common symptoms of potassium deficiency is cramping in extremities, so if you're experiencing painful cramps in your arms and legs, you would need to take heed of these bodily signals. Since potassium is required to regulate muscular contraction, a lack of this vital mineral will usually cause cramping.

A blood test can help you establish your potassium levels and correcting your diet can help ward off deficiencies, leaving you energized and pain free.