The Mechanism Behind Potassium’s Role in the Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases

Potassium is a mineral nutrient which is very much needed for one’s good health. Your daily diet can provide you with sufficient amount of potassium, but sometimes an increased need for this nutrient can create insufficiency. This condition arises due to the intake of certain medications or higher amount of sodium.

Previous researches have shown that increasing one’s intake of potassium can lower his or her risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. However, the underlying mechanism i.e., the role of potassium in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, was not known.

It was suggested that potassium might reduce cardiovascular diseases via preventing the buildup of calcium in the smooth muscle cells within the arteries- a condition known as vascular calcification. This condition promotes atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. This is a dangerous disorder in which plaques of calcium, fat, cholesterol, etc. decreases the flow of blood.

The Current Research

The current research was done by a group of researchers at the Birmingham VA Medical Center and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It was carried out under the leadership of Dr. Yabing Chen. In the study, they set out to find the mechanism by which vascular calcification process is affected by dietary potassium. The study was partly funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The findings of the study were published in JCI Insight on October 5, 2017.

The scientists fed three groups of atherosclerosis-prone male mice for thirty weeks with a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet containing high, low or normal potassium levels respectively. They studied the vascular calcification levels in these mice using ultrasound imaging and tissue staining methods.

They discovered increased vascular calcification and artery stiffness in mice fed with a low-potassium diet. On the other hand, they found reduced calcification and stiffness in mice fed with high-potassium diet. The researchers confirmed through smooth muscle cell cultures that high levels of potassium inhibited vascular calcification and low potassium levels enhanced it.

Then, the researchers investigated the modifications brought about in proteins by vascular smooth muscle cells under low potassium levels. They discovered that decrease in proteins associated with smooth muscle cells and high increases in those associated with bone cells. This increase in bone-associated proteins indicates that low potassium levels directly affects the calcification of smooth muscle cells.

They also demonstrated that low potassium levels raised the level of calcium within smooth muscle cells. This increased calcium levels caused the activation of a protein called cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB protein). And by blocking the activity of CREB, the calcification of smooth muscle cell could be inhibited. This revealed that CREB plays a vital role in the calcification process during low potassium levels.

Further, a link was found between CREB activation and increased autophagy. Autophagy is the process of breaking down and recycling of waste within the cell. To know the part played by autophagy in vascular calcification and artery stiffness, more research work has to be directed in this line.

The study’s coauthor, Dr. Paul W. Sanders of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says that these findings have a crucial clinical and health translational potential as they suggest the advantage of sufficient potassium supplementation on preventing vascular calcification in atherosclerosis-prone mice, and the unfavorable effect of low potassium consumption.

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