Functions of Potassium:
a) Important for the nervous system- The nervous system transmits signals and messages to and fro the brain in the form of impulses that are required for the muscles to contract, heart to beat, reflexes, etc. Nerve impulse conduction occurs when sodium ion moves out and potassium ions move in the cell.
A decrease in the potassium levels affects the generation of nerve impulses by the body.
b) Regulates heart and muscle contraction- Nerve impulses generated by the nervous system are responsible for the contraction of muscles. Altered potassium levels deregulate the nerve impulse generation and in turn affect the muscle contractions.
Also, the movement of potassium ions in and out of the cell helps maintain a regular heartbeat. When potassium blood level is high, it results in weakened contraction of the heart causing it to become flaccid and dilated.
The improper beating of the heart results in inadequate pumping of blood to organs. In some cases, an irregular heartbeat can be fatal.
c) Reduces blood pressure- High blood pressure is a common problem seen worldwide and presents with the risk of heart diseases. High sodium levels cause blood pressure to increase. High potassium levels can help overcome high blood pressure by removing excess sodium levels from the body.
d) Prevents osteoporosis- Osteoporosis refers to hollow and porous bones often associated with low calcium levels in the body. Several studies have shown that increased potassium levels prevent osteoporosis by retaining calcium levels in the body.
e) Prevent kidney stones- Kidney stones are mainly composed of calcium, but other materials such as struvite, cysteine, and uric acid can also lead to the formation of stones.
Potassium citrate is known to lower calcium levels in the urine. Potassium citrate is found in large amounts in many fruits and vegetables. Thus, potassium in this way helps to prevent the formation of stones.
f) Reduce water retention- Potassium is known to get rid of excess water that accumulates inside the cells, thus reducing water retention.
Alteration of Normal Levels of Potassium:
Potassium is abundantly present in many food items; thus, deficiency of potassium due to inadequate intake is rare. However, losing out large volumes of potassium from the body can lead to potassium deficiencies. This is generally seen in cases such as chronic diarrhea, vomiting, etc. when there is a loss of water from the body, thus altering the electrolyte concentrations. Other conditions that may result in potassium deficiency include excessive use of diuretics, excessive sweating, use of antibiotics, and magnesium deficiency.
Symptoms of potassium deficiency or hypokalemia vary with the severity of the disease. A temporary decrease in potassium levels may not present with any symptoms. Chronic deficiencies, however, can be quite severe resulting in muscle spasms, weakness, nausea, irregular heartbeat, constipation, and fatigue.
Low blood potassium levels can be detected by a blood test or by measuring pH levels in the body. For treating hypokalemia, potassium supplements are the first choice especially if the kidney is in good condition. In severe cases, intravenous treatments may be required. Getting rid of excess sodium levels from the body helps maintain the electrolyte balance. Potassium-sparing diuretics can be used for this purpose. People with good kidney health can take this. To have high potassium levels is uncommon, but can occur if the person is on potassium supplements, or the body cannot get rid of the excess mineral from the body. The latter case is usually seen in individuals with poor kidney health such as those with chronic kidney disease. Also with age, kidney functions decrease, thus resulting in the accumulation of potassium in the body.
Apart from these, cocaine use, prolonged exercise, potassium-conserving diuretics, chemotherapy, diabetes, and severe burns. Symptoms become evident when the concentration is too high. The most noticeable symptom is irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia. Treatment involves medications that remove excess potassium from the body. In cases where the kidney does not function properly, dialysis can be one option to remove excess potassium. Insulin and glucose injections can be helpful, as they will transport the potassium to the cells from blood for removal. To prevent the risk of heart disease that may develop due to hyperkalemia, calcium gluconate may be given for temporary purpose to stabilize the heart. Albuterol inhaler can lower excessively high levels. Salt intake should be decreased in case of hyperkalemia. Liquid intake such as juices should be taken.
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