Jun 3, 2013

Potassium – Finding the Proper Balance to Maintain a Healthy Body

Potassium is a nutrient that is critical for the proper function of all cells, tissues, and organs in the human body. It is crucial to heart function and plays a major role in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction, which is important for normal digestive and muscular function. Potassium is also an electrolyte, meaning it conducts electricity in the body, along with calcium, chloride, magnesium and sodium. The kidney is the main organ that controls the balance of potassium as it removes excess potassium into the urine.

Benefits to Keeping Potassium Levels Balanced

Hypokalemia is the result of having too little potassium in the blood and may be counteracted by ingesting foods containing high levels of potassium. On the other hand, hyperkalemia occurs when too much potassium is in the bloodstream. Older people have a greater risk of hyperkalemia as the kidneys become less efficient at eliminating potassium as a person ages.

Keeping the right potassium balance in the body relies on the amount of calcium, magnesium and sodium present in the body. Too much sodium or too little magnesium may increase the need for more potassium. As the daily intake of salt in Western cultures is much higher than other cultures, relative deficiency of dietary potassium in the modern diet may play a role in the pathology of some chronic diseases. Various studies have shown the benefits of healthy potassium diet and they include the following:
  • an increased potassium intake is associated with decreased risk of stroke
  • there are positive associations between dietary potassium intake and bone mineral density
  • decrease in kidney stones
  • lower blood pressure
Most people obtain the required amounts of potassium from a diet rich in vegetables and fruits. Good sources of potassium include bananas, orange, avocados, cantaloupes, tomatoes, potatoes, lima beans, flounder, salmon, cod, chicken, and other meats.

Hypokalemia – Low Levels of Potassium in the Blood

When the body has too little potassium, it is known as hypokalemia. In an article at WebMD simply titled "Hypokalemia", David Garth, MD states that the reference range for potassium levels is 3.5-5 mEq/L with total body potassium stores of approximately 50 mEq/kg. While hypokalemia is generally defined as a potassium level of less than 3.5 mEq/L, moderate hypokalemia is rated at a serum level of 2.5-3 mEq/L and severe hypokalemia is less than 2.5 mEq/L.

Hypokalemia is usually caused by the loss of too much potassium through the urine or intestines but is also known to come about due to prolonged vomiting, enemas or laxative use, steroid use, diuretics, excessive sweating, malnutrition or as a result of a malabsorption syndrome such as Crohn's disease. Symptoms of hypokalemia include:
  • nausea or vomiting
  • psychosis, delirium or hallucinations
  • weakness, lack of energy
  • tingling or numbness
  • abdominal cramps or bloating
  • stomach disturbances
  • irregular heartbeat
Hyperkalemia – High Levels of Potassium in the Blood

Hyperkalemia occurs when the blood potassium levels are higher than 6.0 mEq/L and requires immediate treatment as this condition can induce deadly cardiac arrhythmias. Although hyperkalemia is one of the deadliest electrolyte abnormalities, it is also one of the most treatable. Symptoms may include severe fatigue, an absent or weak heartbeat, nausea or changes in breathing pattern.

Hyperkalemia may be related to an increase in total body potassium or the excess release of potassium from the cells into the bloodstream. As the kidneys normally remove excess potassium from the body, most cases of hyperkalemia are caused by disorders such as acute and chronic kidney failure that reduce the kidneys' ability to rid the body of potassium. Other causes include:
  • Addison's disease
  • type 1 diabetes
  • alcoholism
  • heavy drug use
  • destruction of red blood cells due to severe injury or burns
Sometimes a report of high blood potassium isn't true and may actually be the result of ruptured blood cells in the blood sample either during or shortly after drawing the sample. The ruptured cells leak their potassium into the sample which falsely raises the amount of potassium in the blood sample, creating an incorrect diagnosis of hyperkalemia.


Higdon, Jane, Ph.D., “Potassium,“ Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University, February, 2004 and updated by Drake, Victoria J., Ph.D in November 2007

Parham, Walter A. et al, “Hyperkalemia Revisted,” Tex Heart Inst J. 2006; 33(1): 40–47. PMCID: PMC1413606


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