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What is potassium and what does it do?

Potassium is a mineral found in many foods. Your body needs potassium for almost everything it does, including proper kidney and heart function, muscle contraction, and nerve transmission.

Potassium, the most abundant intracellular cation, is an essential nutrient that is naturally present in many foods and available as a dietary supplement. Potassium is present in all body tissues and is required for normal cell function because of its role in maintaining intracellular fluid volume and transmembrane electrochemical gradients [1,2]. Potassium has a strong relationship with sodium, the main regulator of extracellular fluid volume, including plasma volume.

The total amount of potassium in the adult body is about 45 millimole (mmol)/kg body weight (about 140 g for a 175 pound adult; 1 mmol = 1 milliequivalent [mEq] or 39.1 mg potassium) [3]. Most potassium resides intracellularly, and a small amount is in extracellular fluid [2-4]. The intracellular concentration of potassium is about 30 times higher than the extracellular concentration, and this difference forms a transmembrane electrochemical gradient that is maintained via the sodium-potassium (Na+/K+) ATPase transporter [4]. In addition to maintaining cellular tonicity, this gradient is required for proper nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and kidney function.

Potassium is absorbed via passive diffusion, primarily in the small intestine [2,4,5]. About 90% of ingested potassium is absorbed and used to maintain its normal intracellular and extracellular concentrations [3,5]. Potassium is excreted primarily in the urine, some is excreted in the stool, and a very small amount is lost in sweat. The kidneys control potassium excretion in response to changes in dietary intakes, and potassium excretion increases rapidly in healthy people after potassium consumption, unless body stores are depleted [2,6]. The kidneys can adapt to variable potassium intakes in healthy individuals, but a minimum of 5 mmol (about 195 mg) potassium is excreted daily in urine [3]. This, combined with other obligatory losses, suggests that potassium balance cannot be achieved with intakes less than about 400–800 mg/day.

How much potassium do I need?

The amount of potassium you need each day depends on your age and sex. Average daily recommended amounts are listed below in milligrams (mg).



  Birth to 6 months

400 mg  

  Infants 7–12 months

860 mg  

  Children 1–3 years

2,000 mg  

  Children 4–8 years

2,300 mg  

  Children 9–13 years (boys)

2,500 mg  

  Children 9–13 years (girls)

2,300 mg  

  Teens 14–18 years (boys)

3,000 mg  

  Teens 14–18 years (girls)

2,300 mg  

  Adults 19+ years (men)

3,400 mg  

  Adults 19+ years (women)

2,600 mg  

  Pregnant teens

2,600 mg  

  Pregnant women

2,900 mg  

  Breastfeeding teens

2,500 mg  

  Breastfeeding women

2,800 mg  

What happens if I don’t get enough potassium?

Getting too little potassium can increase blood pressure, deplete calcium in bones, and increase the risk of kidney stones.

Prolonged diarrhea or vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic use, eating clay, heavy sweating, dialysis, or using certain medications can cause severe potassium deficiency. In this condition, called hypokalemia, blood levels of potassium are very low. Symptoms of hypokalemia include constipation, tiredness, muscle weakness, and not feeling well. More severe hypokalemia can cause increased urination, decreased brain function, high blood sugar levels, muscle paralysis, difficulty breathing, and irregular heartbeat. Severe hypokalemia can be life threatening.

What are some effects of potassium on health?

Scientists are studying potassium to understand how it affects health. Here are some examples of what this research has shown.

Kidney stones

Getting too little potassium can deplete calcium from bones and increase the amount of calcium in urine. This calcium can form hard deposits (stones) in your kidneys, which can be very painful. Increasing the amount of potassium in your diet might reduce your risk of developing kidney stones.

Bone health

People who have high intakes of potassium from fruits and vegetables seem to have stronger bones. Eating more of these foods might improve your bone health by increasing bone mineral density (a measure of bone strength).

High blood pressure

and stroke

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke. People with low intakes of potassium have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, especially if their diet is high in salt (sodium). Increasing the amount of potassium in your diet and decreasing the amount of sodium might help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke.

Blood sugar control

and type 2 diabetes

Low intakes of potassium might increase blood sugar levels. Over time, this can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance and lead to type 2 diabetes. But more research is needed to fully understand whether potassium intakes affect blood sugar levels and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Can potassium be harmful?

Potassium from food and beverages has not been shown to cause any harm in healthy people who have normal kidney function. Excess potassium is eliminated in the urine.

Where can I find out more about potassium?

• For general information about potassium:
• For more information on food sources of potassium:
o U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) FoodData Central 
o Nutrient list for potassium (listed by potassium content), USDA
• For more advice on choosing dietary supplements:
• For information about building a healthy dietary pattern:


1. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate. Washington, DC; 2005.

2. Stone MS, Martyn L, Weaver CM. Potassium intake, bioavailability, hypertension, and glucose control. Nutrients 2016;8. [PubMed abstract]

3. Preuss HG, Clouatre DL. Sodium, chloride, and potassium. In: Erdman JW, Macdonald IA, Zeisel SH, eds. Present Knowledge in Nutrition. 10th ed. Washington, DC: Wiley-Blackwell; 2012:475-92.

4. Hinderling PH. The pharmacokinetics of potassium in humans is unusual. J Clin Pharmacol 2016;56:1212-20. [PubMed abstract]

5. Bailey JL, Sands JM, Franch HA. Water, electrolytes, and acid-based metabolism. In: Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL, Ziegler TR, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 11th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014:102-32.

6. Levene DL. Potassium chloride: absorption and excretion. Can Med Assoc J 1973;108:853-5. [PubMed abstract]

7. Health information data from U.S. National Institutes of Health

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