Vascular effects of sodium and potassium intake

Lieke Gijsbers

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the main cause of death worldwide. Annually, about 17.5 million people die from CVD, accounting for ~30% of deaths worldwide. Elevated blood pressure (BP) is a major risk factor for CVD and the largest single contributor to global mortality. BP is a modifiable risk factor that is largely determined by lifestyle factors, including diet. Dietary minerals, in particular sodium and potassium, play an important role in BP regulation. While adverse effects of sodium and beneficial effects of potassium on BP have repeatedly been shown in human intervention studies, evidence on other vascular effects of these dietary minerals is still scarce. Therefore, we investigated the BP effects of sodium and potassium intake in healthy humans in a broader (patho)physiological context, focusing also on endothelial function, arterial stiffness, fluid regulation and heart rate.

In Chapter 2, the effects of sodium and potassium supplementation on BP and arterial stiffness were examined by means of a randomized placebo-controlled crossover trial. Thirty-six untreated Dutch individuals with mildly elevated BP on a fully controlled diet that was relatively low in sodium (2-3 g/d) and potassium (2-3 g/d) received capsules with sodium (3 g/d), potassium (3 g/d) or placebo, for 4 weeks each, in random order. After each intervention, fasting office BP, 24-h ambulatory BP and measures of arterial stiffness were assessed. The results of this study showed that increased sodium intake strongly raised office and ambulatory systolic BP (7-8 mmHg) whereas increased potassium intake lowered systolic BP (3-4 mmHg). Potassium supplementation increased ambulatory HR, but office HR was not affected. Measures of arterial stiffness were not materially affected by increased sodium or potassium intake, possibly due to the relatively short intervention period.

In the same study we investigated the effects of increased sodium and potassium intake on the functional measure of endothelial function (flow-mediated dilation), and on a comprehensive set of biomarkers of endothelial dysfunction and low-grade inflammation (Chapter 3). Four weeks of supplemental sodium had no effect on brachial flow-mediated dilation, or on the blood biomarkers of endothelial dysfunction and low-grade inflammation, except for an increase in serum endothelin-1 (a biomarker of endothelial dysfunction). Potassium supplementation improved flow-mediated dilation by 1.2% and tended to lower the low-grade inflammation marker interleukin-8. This suggests that potassium may beneficially influence vascular health by improving endothelial function.

In a post-hoc analysis of the same study in 35 untreated individuals, the humoral effects of supplemental sodium and potassium were assessed using a panel of markers that are involved in osmoregulation and volume regulation (Chapter 4). Results showed that supplemental sodium increased plasma natriuretic peptides and plasma copeptin, and suppressed the renin-angiotensin system. Supplemental potassium decreased plasma MR-pro-ANP, increased plasma copeptin, and stimulated the renin-angiotensin system. These findings suggest that the mineral-induced changes in BP elicit several counter regulatory mechanisms to maintain volume homeostasis.

In Chapter 5, the effect of potassium supplementation on heart rate was assessed in a meta-analysis of 22 randomized, placebo-controlled trials in healthy adults. Overall, increasing potassium intake by 2-3 g/d for at least two weeks did not affect resting heart rate. 24-h Ambulatory heart rate was not significantly affected in subgroup analysis of 4 RCTs, including ours. Other subgroup analyses for characteristics of the study and study population also showed no significant effects, and there was no evidence for a dose-response relationship. These results suggest that increasing potassium intake is not expected to adversely affect heart rate in apparently healthy adults.

In Chapter 6, BP associations for sodium and potassium intake using different dietary assessment methods were examined. Data of 993 healthy Dutch adults not on antihypertensive medication were analyzed using a cross-sectional approach. Sodium and potassium intake were estimated from two non-consecutive 24-h urinary samples (considered as the gold standard), two non-consecutive web-based 24-h recalls, and a validated 180-item food frequency questionnaire (FFQ). This study showed no significant associations of sodium intake with BP, regardless of the dietary assessment method used. Potassium intake estimated from 24-h urine and FFQ was inversely associated with BP (~1.5 mmHg reduction per 1 g/d increment). This suggests that dietary assessment methods in cross-sectional studies may be inadequate for estimating the association of sodium intake with BP, but may yield reliable results for potassium intake.

As discussed in Chapter 7, the studies presented in this thesis indicate that increasing sodium intake from a recommended level to a level that is common in Western societies for four weeks strongly raises BP in individuals with an untreated mildly elevated BP. The results for endothelial function and arterial stiffness are inconclusive, and hence more (longer-term) studies are warranted. Increasing the intake of potassium lowers BP and improves endothelial function, even in individuals on a relatively low-sodium diet. Both sodium and potassium intake affected fluid parameters, likely indicating that compensatory responses are stimulated to maintain body fluid balance. Although in our RCT ambulatory heart rate was increased after supplemental potassium, the meta-analysis showed that increasing potassium intake is unlikely to affect heart rate in apparently healthy adults. When evaluating the effectiveness of sodium and potassium intake on cardiovascular health, results obtained from observational studies should be interpreted with caution, particularly for sodium intake.

Around the world people consume on average 9-12 g of salt and 2-4 g of potassium on a daily basis. A more optimal intake of sodium and potassium can be achieved through adherence to dietary guidelines and product reformulation by food industry. This could reduce BP by more than 10 mmHg and lower the number of cardiovascular deaths by at least one-quarter in Western populations.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Geleijnse, Marianne, Promotor
  • van 't Veer, Pieter, Promotor
Award date13 Sep 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463436267
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • sodium
  • potassium
  • vascular system
  • hypertension
  • blood pressure
  • mineral supplements
  • endothelium
  • blood vessels
  • heart rate
  • osmoregulation
  • human nutrition research
  • randomized controlled trials
  • cardiovascular diseases

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