Last Updated June 24th, 2019
Potassium: Why you need this element in your body?
Potassium is a mineral and is one of the seven essential macro minerals. It is also an electrolyte. Electrolytes conduct electrical impulses throughout the body, which assist in a range of essential body functions. The English name for the element potassium comes from the word potash, which refers to an early method of extracting various potassium salts by placing the ash of burnt wood or tree leaves in a pot, adding water, heating, and evaporating the solution.
Potassium is necessary for the heart, kidneys, and other organs to work normally. The human body requires around 100 milligrams of potassium daily to support vital processes. Potassium helps in the range of health benefits including blood pressure, normal water balance, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, digestion, heart rhythm, and pH balance.
Potassium is not naturally produced by the body and needs to be consumed either through diet or through a supplement. The primary use of consuming a potassium-rich diet is because of its benefits, which are directly related to heart health.
Why the symbol K for potassium?
Potassium is a chemical element with symbol K. The symbol K stems from kali, from the root word alkali, which in turn comes from Arabic word called as al-qalyah meaning plant ashes. In 1797, the German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered potash in the minerals leucite and lepidolite, and realized that potash was not a product of plant growth, but actually contained a new element and he proposed to call it kali. In 1807, Humphry Davy produced the element via electrolysis. In 1809, Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert proposed the name Kalium for Davy’s potassium. In 1814, the Swedish chemist Berzelius advocated the name Kalium for potassium, with the chemical symbol K.
What are the health benefits of potassium?
Fluid balance is an aspect of the homeostasis (the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially maintained by physiological processes) of organisms in which the amount of water in the organism needs to be controlled via osmoregulation (maintenance of constant osmotic pressure in the fluids of an organism by the control of water and salt concentrations) such that the concentrations of electrolytes (salts in solution) in the various body fluids, which are kept within healthy ranges.
The body is made of approximately 60% water and 40% of this water is present inside the cells in a substance called intracellular fluid (ICF). The remainder is found outside the cells in areas, which include blood, spinal fluid, and between cells. This fluid is called extracellular fluid (ECF).
The amount of water in the intracellular fluid and extracellular fluid is affected by their concentration of electrolytes, especially potassium and sodium. Potassium is the main electrolyte in the intracellular fluid, and it determines the amount of water inside the cells whereas sodium is the main electrolyte in the extracellular fluid, and it determines the amount of water outside the cells. The number of electrolytes, which is relative to the amount of fluid, is called osmolality.
Osmolality is usually the same inside and outside the cells under normal conditions. Inequality in osmolality can lead to movement of water with fewer electrolytes to the side with more electrolytes to equalize electrolyte concentrations, which causes the cells to shrink when water moves out of them, or swell up and burst when water moves into them, which is the reason why we should consume the right electrolytes, including potassium. Poor fluid balance can lead to dehydration, which affects the heart and kidneys. Maintaining a good fluid balance is important for optimal health.
The nervous system is a network of nerve cells and fibers, which transmits nerve impulses between parts of the body. These messages, which are delivered in the form of nerve impulses help, regulate the muscle contractions, heartbeat, reflexes, and many other body functions. Nerve impulses are generated by sodium ions moving into cells and potassium ions moving out of cells. The movement of ions changes the voltage of the cell, which activates a nerve impulse. A drop in potassium levels in the blood can affect the body’s ability to generate a nerve impulse. Consuming adequate potassium from our diet can help maintain healthy nerve function.
Muscle and Heart Contractions
A concentric contraction causes muscles to shorten thereby generating force. Eccentric contractions cause muscles to elongate in response to a greater opposing force. Similarly, normal heart contractions are very important for the heart to function adequately.
Irregular heart contractions can lead to a serious disorder in the heart function called as premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). Premature ventricular contractions are extra heartbeats that begin in one of the heart’s two lower pumping chambers called ventricles. These extra beats disrupt regular heart rhythm, which caused a feeling of fluttering or a skipped beat in the chest.
We are aware that the nervous system helps regulate muscle contractions and altered blood potassium levels can affect nerve signals in the nervous system, weakening muscle contractions. Both low and high potassium levels in the blood can affect nerve impulses by altering the voltage of nerve cells. When there is a high concentration of potassium levels the heart may become dilated and flaccid, which can weaken its contractions and produce an abnormal heartbeat.
Similarly, low potassium levels in the blood can alter the heartbeat. When the heart is not able to beat properly, it cannot effectively pump blood to the brain, organs, and muscles, which can cause serious medical conditions including sudden death.
High blood pressure, which is referred to as hypertension is a medical condition, which affects many people. It is considered one of the main risk factors for heart disease. High levels of sodium in the blood cause an increase in blood pressure.
A potassium-rich diet may reduce blood pressure by helping the body remove excess sodium. Research has shown that consumption of potassium-rich foods by people already having high blood pressure have experienced a decrease in their blood pressure by many folds.
A stroke may be caused by a blocked artery called an ischemic stroke or the leaking or bursting of a blood vessel called as hemorrhagic stroke. A stroke occurs when there is a lack of blood flow to the brain. Altered concentrations of potassium levels can lead to the heart becoming dilated and flaccid, which weakens its contractions and produce an abnormal heartbeat and loses its ability to adequately pump blood to the brain, which in turn can cause a stroke. Adequate levels of potassium protect the heart and reduce the risk of stroke.
Osteoporosis is a disease in which bones deteriorate or become brittle and fragile due to low bone mass and bone tissue loss, which leads to hollow and porous bones. It is often linked to low levels of calcium, an important mineral for bone health. Studies have shown that potassium helps prevent osteoporosis by reducing the amount of calcium the body loses through urine and helps improve bone mass.
Kidney stones are masses made of crystals, which originate in the kidneys, but can be found at any point in the urinary tract. Kidney stones can lead to abnormal functioning of the kidney and cause severe and uncontrollable pain when the kidney stone starts to move from the kidney to the urinary bladder. Calcium is a common mineral found in kidney stones. Studies have shown that potassium citrate can reduce calcium levels in urine and prevent kidney stones. Many fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium citrate and can be added to the diet to help prevent kidney stones.
Water retention or fluid retention is a condition when excess fluids build up inside the body. Water retention occurs in the circulatory system or within tissues and cavities. It can cause swelling in the hands, feet, ankles, and legs. High concentration of calcium and low concentration of potassium are usually the cause of this condition. High potassium intake can help reduce water retention by increasing urine production and reducing sodium levels.
Side effects of altered potassium levels
Altered levels of potassium can cause two main medical conditions called hypokalemia and hyperkalemia.
Hypokalemia: Hypokalemia is a condition when there is a low level of potassium in the blood. A serum potassium level of less than 3.5 mEq/L is considered to be hypokalemic. The most common cause of hypokalemia is excessive potassium loss in urine due to prescription medications that increase urination, which is known as water pills or diuretics.
These types of medications are often prescribed for people who have high blood pressure or heart disease. Vomiting and diarrhea can result in excessive potassium loss from the digestive system. Low potassium levels are also caused by not getting enough potassium in the diet. Other causes of potassium loss include:
- Excessive alcohol use.
- Chronic kidney disease.
- Diabetic ketoacidosis.
- Excessive laxative use.
- Excessive sweating.
- Folic acid deficiency.
- Primary aldosteronism.
- Antibiotic use.
Hyperkalemia: Hyperkalemia is the medical term, which describes a potassium level in the blood that is higher than normal. Normal potassium levels in the blood range between 3.5 and 5.0 mEq/L. High blood potassium obtained by blood draw cannot be considered to be accurate since it may be caused by the rupture of blood cells in the blood sample during or shortly after the blood draw.
The ruptured cells leak their potassium into the sample, which can come up as high potassium levels in the blood. Medical professionals generally prefer to have a second draw of blood to validate this. Some of the genuine causes of high potassium include:
- Acute kidney failure.
- Chronic kidney disease.
- Addison disease (adrenal insufficiency).
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme.
- Beta blockers.
- Destruction of red blood cells due to severe injury or burns.
- Excessive use of potassium supplements.
- Type 1 diabetes.
Deficiencies usually happen when the body suddenly loses too much potassium. Similarly, it is not common to get too much potassium, though it can happen if too many potassium supplements are consumed. Excess blood potassium mostly occurs when the body cannot remove the mineral through urine. Therefore, it affects people with poor kidney function or chronic kidney disease.
People suffering from chronic kidney disease need to limit potassium intake. Also, people who are aged also need to limit the potassium intake since kidney function normally declines with age. Nevertheless, it is important to make sure we get enough potassium daily for optimal health and this particularly implies to elderly people since high blood pressure, strokes, kidney stones, and osteoporosis are more common among the elderly.
What are some of the best sources of potassium?
- Beet greens, cooked:909 mg
- Yams, baked:670 mg
- Pinto beans, cooked:646 mg
- White potatoes baked:544 mg
- Portobello mushrooms, grilled:521 mg
- Avocado:485 mg
- Sweet potato, baked:475 mg
- Spinach, cooked:466 mg
- Kale:447 mg
- Salmon, cooked:414 mg
- Bananas:358 mg
- Peas, cooked:271 mg.
Potassium is one of the most important minerals in the body, which regulates fluid balance, muscle contractions, and nerve signals. Potassium-rich diet helps reduce blood pressure, water retention, protect against stroke, and prevent osteoporosis and kidney stones. Maintaining an optimal level of potassium in the bloodstream is the key to a successful and healthy life.
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