According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are about 1.5 million Americans currently living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). If you are one of them, you probably want to learn all you can about how to manage your symptoms. Though the cause of RA is still unknown, researchers are finding new clues all the time that may help you understand your triggers. One such clue that is gaining evidence is the link between potassium levels and RA symptoms.

Several studies have demonstrated that those who suffer from RA tend to have lower levels of potassium in their blood. Does this mean that RA sufferers eat too few potassium-rich foods? Probably not. The most common reason for low potassium levels in RA patients seems to be diarrhea, which flushes the nutrient out of the body and is often caused by RA medications.

People with RA also generally show lower levels of cortisol, a natural steroid that fights inflammation. As you probably know by now, inflammation of the joints is the major cause of arthritis pain. What you may not know is that our bodies’ own cortisol helps our kidneys excrete potassium. Frequent diarrhea can also account for reduced cortisol. When potassium is flushed out of the body, cortisol works to conserve potassium, and cortisol levels also drop.

Scientists have conducted research that looks at whether increasing potassium could help improve symptoms in people with RA. One landmark study in 2008 showed a strong “anti-pain effect” of high-level potassium supplementation. In fact, nearly half of those who took 6000 mg of potassium daily for 28 days reported a one third reduction in their arthritis pain. Another one third of the participants reported a moderate decrease in pain.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that supplements are not always a good idea. High doses of certain nutrients, including potassium, can be hard on your body. Potassium supplements can cause stomach problems, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Higher doses can even lead to muscle weakness, paralysis, and heart problems. Certain medications can also interfere with the body’s ability to process potassium, including common over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen. It’s generally much better to get the nutrients you need directly from the foods that contain them. In some instances, however, a person simply cannot eat enough of the nutrient to see a real benefit.

Certain topical applications of potassium have also shown some promise as anti-inflammatory agents. One recent study combined potassium with a topical rub that was applied to the joint, with the patient reporting reduced pain. More research is definitely needed on this subject, however, as most relevant studies are decades old.

So, what does this mean for you? Well, it pays to do your homework. Talk to your doctor about whether potassium supplementation is safe for you. If they recommend against a high-dose supplement, or if you would rather change your diet than take a pill, you can always increase the amount of potassium in the foods you eat (or take a dip in the ocean) and see if you can get the same result. Some healthy food choices that are also rich in potassium include cantaloupe, potatoes, bananas, orange juice, and raw spinach. 

Here’s the bottom line: you may find that increasing your potassium levels, along with your regular medication, diet, and exercise regimen, helps to keep your RA symptoms in check. At the very least, talking to your doctor about this and other recent research could lead to a more open dialogue, and perhaps to additional treatments that may benefit you and your particular situation.