According to the American Heart Association, stroke is the third leading cause of death in American women. In the United States, each year sees another 795,000 people have a stroke. Because women live longer than men, their chances of suffering from a stroke are increased.
But this sobering news has a silver lining as women, in particular, can benefit from a simple nutritional tweak. Many women (and men) fall short of the recommended levels for potassium needed for essential body functions, including heart and muscle function.
Researchers at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine revealed the far-reaching benefits of a potassium-rich diet in a recent study. Potassium is common – it’s not hard to get it in your foods. You don’t have to eat anything weird or exotic. You just have to know what to eat, then see to it that you do. . .
Study: Falling Short of Potassium Ups Stroke Risk
A study published in 20141 followed 90,137 postmenopausal women aged 50-79 for 11 years. The researchers did not include women with a history of stroke. The participants answered questions regarding their diets and lifestyle. Importantly, the study found that those women who consumed the highest amounts of potassium slashed their risk of stroke.
Previous research has linked high potassium levels to lower blood pressure, which can prevent stroke. However, this large study showed that potassium directly reduces the risk of stroke. The study’s lead author Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, told the press, “We think the beneficial effects act through other pathways, beyond the effects of blood pressure.”
Women with potassium-rich diets reduced stroke risk in general by 12 percent and the risk of ischemic stroke by 16 percent.
And the numbers get even better among women with no hypertension. In this subset, women with high levels of potassium cut their risk for all types of strokes by 21 percent, and 27 percent for ischemic stroke.
“In the study, the average potassium intake from foods was 2,611 mg a day,” noted Dr. Wassertheil-Smoller. “That’s well below the recommended amount of 4,700 mg/day by the Department of Agriculture or even the lower recommended amount of 3,600 mg/day by the World Health Organization.”
I would not assume these findings apply to women only. It’s all but certain that men can likewise cut their stroke risk with a potassium-rich diet.
In my mind, the study offers two important takeaways.
First and foremost, we should all strive to prevent and manage high blood pressure before it leads to a potentially life-threatening stroke. High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke, and about three out of four Americans who have a stroke have high blood pressure2.
To that point, women in the study with hypertension who consumed higher levels of dietary potassium did not have a lower risk of stroke.
The study emphasizes that high potassium intake benefits women the most significantly before hypertension sets in. Researchers posit that dietary potassium prevents arterial stiffness (arteriosclerosis), which increases the chances of a blood clot and stroke.3
Secondly, the study proves a potassium-rich diet guards against stroke … especially the ischemic variety. Luckily, it’s easy to incorporate high potassium foods into your diet because they taste good and you can find them anywhere!
A dozen potassium-rich foods:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Winter squash
A three-ounce slice of chicken breast is rated at 220 mg of potassium. A typical banana contains 422 mg of potassium, while an orange is said to have 237. So you can see it takes some doing to get to a daily intake of 4,700 mg.
A serving of spinach, by comparison, is a bonanza at 1,897 mg, but what they call a “serving” is more than 12 ounces, and that sounds to me like a whopping amount.
So while the good news is that many common foods are potassium-rich, the recommended daily intake is high and we’ve all got our work cut out for us.
- Seth et. al. Potassium intake and risk of stroke in women with hypertension and nonhypertension in the
Women’s Health Initiative. Stroke, 2014; 45(10): 2874-80
- Blood Pressure and Stroke. American Heart Association (2016).
- Arteriosclerosis and Stroke. American Heart Association (2016).