OHSU researchers join international team to find out why potassium lowers blood pressure

Fruits and vegetables -- from bananas to sweet potatoes and tomato paste -- are just a few of the foods that are high in potassium. (KATU)

Doctors have known since the beginning of the last century that potassium lowers blood pressure.

High blood pressure kills an estimated 7.5 million people worldwide each year.

Now a team of six international doctors and researchers -- including a team at Oregon Health & Science University -- have five years and a $6 million grant to discover how and why it works.

“What my colleagues and I have discovered is there's a switch in the kidney that seems to be the mechanism by which potassium, when you eat more of it, your blood pressure goes down,” said Dr. David Ellison, a professor of medicine and physiology and pharmacology. “We've been looking at exactly how this switch mechanism works. And trying to nail down what the proteins involved in the switch are.”

Dr. Ellison says diets high in salt are the leading cause of high blood pressure. But getting people to reduce their salt intake is harder than increasing the amount of potassium in their diets.

“The beneficial effects of potassium are most striking for people or animals who are consuming a high-salt diet,” he said. “So that if you're on a high salt diet then eating more potassium will pretty dramatically lower your blood pressure.”

Fruits and vegetables -- from bananas to sweet potatoes and tomato paste -- are just a few of the foods that are high in potassium.

The study is funded by the Trans-Atlantic Leducq Foundation and includes research groups from Denmark, Australia, Switzerland and the U.S.

“Our group unites them all because I’m a physician/scientist and we study both patients and volunteer subjects and we study animal models, and cells and culture,” Ellison said.

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