You Need More than a Banana to Maintain a Healthy Level of Potassium

When I first met Stuart, he was prone to nocturnal leg cramps. We’ve all had them, that jolt in the night from the intense pain of the calf muscle cramping up for no apparent reason. Migraineurs can have these across many nights, so much so that it becomes just a part of their life.

He was following “Dr. Mom’s” advice of eating bananas for extra potassium to help alleviate them. According to the Mayo Clinic, leg cramps can be caused by:

  • dehydration resulting from frequent urination and/or vomiting; and/or
  • mineral deficiencies of potassium and magnesium.

There is no scientific evidence to link low levels of potassium to migraines. On the contrary, migraines may lead to low levels of potassium owing to:

  • Magnesium deficiency. We saw in last week’s post that migraineurs have reduced levels of magnesium compared to non sufferers. This is important because magnesium deficiency causes potassium depletion.
  • Dehydration. It is always a challenge when coping with a migraine to stay properly hydrated, especially as dehydration will be compounded by the diagnostic symptom of frequent urination.
  • Vomiting. If you are unfortunate enough to have vomiting as a component of your migraines, this will contribute to your dehydration.
  • Excessive use of ibuprofen. Many migraine sufferers self medicate with large doses of ibuprofen over extended periods of time. Near fatal, low levels of potassium were achieved by taking as few as 10 ibuprofen per day for chronic pain.

In addition, migraineurs may be starting out on the back foot with potassium. The highly processed foods of a modern diet consumed in developed countries has ¼ of the potassium intake of a more traditional diet based on whole foods.

The good news is that increasing your potassium intake is easy to do. While researching the best sources of potassium, I found that the list was eerily similar to the best sources of magnesium. It’s been driving me crazy as I can’t find the reason as to why this is. So if anyone can point me to some evidence based literature on the subject it would be greatly appreciated.

Now back to potassium, the daily targets for women and men are 2,800 mg 3,800 mg respectively as recommended by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the New Zealand Ministry of Health. Yes that’s a lot, especially when most servings of food have around 200 mg. When people think of a high potassium food, bananas usually come to mind first. A six inch banana has only 290 mg of potassium. Consuming potassium at that rate you’ll need to eat either 10 or 15 servings to hit your daily target.

Just as we saw with magnesium, the easiest way to increase your potassium is to eat a few high content foods each day as part of a healthy diet. Here are some simple lifestyle choices you can make to increase the amount of potassium in your balanced diet:

  • Eat foods high in magnesium. Nuts, 100% cocoa, dried seaweed, sun dried tomatoes, fish and dried fruit to name a few.
  • A medium potato contains nearly half your potassium intake. Why not try this recipe for easy gnocchi to add variety to your potato consumption?
  • Get creative incorporating avocado into your day as a medium avocado has about 750 mg potassium.

But what about nocturnal leg cramps? It turns out that the underlying cause is not a potassium deficiency but rather a magnesium deficiency. So in a way “Dr Mom” was right to tell you to eat more potassium. Because the two minerals co-occur at high amounts, you were increasing your magnesium intake by association.

Enjoy my friends.

As always, whenever making lifestyle changes be sure and consult your healthcare team. Under no circumstances should you stop or start taking medication or supplements without their consent.

Informed by science, cooked by you.

8 thoughts on “You Need More than a Banana to Maintain a Healthy Level of Potassium

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  3. “By takin as few as 10 ibuprofen a day”? 10 ibuprofen is a few? That’ll be making the vomiting worse as you’ll be rotting away the lining of your stomach and causing ulcers at the same time!


    • I agree Nicole, to me ten ibuprofen a day is a lot. Unfortunately migraine sufferers do self medicate with ibuprofen. And they take a lot of it, continuously, for long periods of time. I’m not advocating this. If you are self medicating you should be informing your health care team. As pointed out there are side effects to long term use of over the counter drugs that your health care team should discuss with you and alternatives. Thanks for reminding us all Nicole 😘


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