Potassium in biology
Potassium is an essential mineral micronutrient and is the main intracellular ion for all types of cells. It is important in maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance in the bodies of humans and animals. Potassium is necessary for the function of all living cells, and is thus present in all plant and animal tissues. It is found in especially high concentrations within plant cells, and in a mixed diet, it is most highly concentrated in fruits. The high concentration of potassium in plants, associated with comparatively very low amounts of sodium there, historically resulted in potassium first being isolated from the ashes of plants (potash), which in turn gave the element its modern name. The high concentration of potassium in plants means that heavy crop production rapidly depletes soils of potassium, and agricultural fertilizers consume 93% of the potassium chemical production of the modern world economy.
The functions of potassium and sodium in living organisms are quite different. Animals, in particular, employ sodium and potassium differentially to generate electrical potentials in animal cells, especially in nervous tissue. Potassium depletion in animals, including humans, results in various neurological dysfunctions.
Function in plants
Function in animals
Potassium is the major cation (positive ion) inside animal cells, while sodium is the major cation outside animal cells. The concentration differences of these charged particles causes a difference in electric potential between the inside and outside of cells, known as the membrane potential. The balance between potassium and sodium is maintained by ion transporters in the cell membrane. All potassium ion channels are tetramers with several conserved secondary structural elements. A number of potassium channel structures have been solved including voltage gated, ligand gated, tandem-pore, and inwardly rectifying channels, from prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The cell membrane potential created by potassium and sodium ions allows the cell to generate an action potential—a "spike" of electrical discharge. The ability of cells to produce electrical discharge is critical for body functions such as neurotransmission, muscle contraction, and heart function.
High blood pressure/Hypertension
Diets low in potassium lead to hypertension.
A severe shortage of potassium in body fluids may cause a potentially fatal condition known as hypokalemia. Hypokalemia typically results from loss of potassium through diarrhea, diuresis, or vomiting. Symptoms are related to alterations in membrane potential and cellular metabolism. Symptoms include muscle weakness and cramps, paralytic ileus, ECG abnormalities, intestinal paralysis, decreased reflex response and (in severe cases) respiratory paralysis, alkalosis and arrhythmia.
In rare cases, habitual consumption of large amounts of black licorice has resulted in hypokalemia. Licorice contains a compound (Glycyrrhizin) that increases urinary excretion of potassium.
Although low dietary intake of potassium does not lead to hypokalemia in healthy individuals, many long-term health risks are related to insufficient dietary potassium.
The 2004 guidelines of the Institute of Medicine specify an RDA of 4700 mg of potassium for adults, based on intake levels that have been found to lower blood pressure, reduce salt sensitivity, and minimize the risk of kidney stones. However, most Americans consume only half that amount per day. Similarly, in the European Union, particularly in Germany and Italy, insufficient potassium intake is widespread.
Eating a variety of foods that contain potassium is the best way to get an adequate amount. Foods with high sources of potassium include kiwifruit, orange juice, potatoes, bananas, coconut, avocados, apricots, parsnips and turnips, although many other fruits, vegetables, legumes, and meats contain potassium.
Common foods very high in potassium:
- beans (white beans and others), dark leafy greens (spinach, Swiss chard, and others), baked potatoes, dried fruit (apricots, peaches, prunes, raisins; figs and dates), baked squash, yogurt, fish (salmon), avocado, and banana;
- nuts (pistachios, almonds, walnuts, etc.) and seeds (squash, pumpkin, sunflower)
The most concentrated foods (per 100 grams) are:
- dried herbs, sun dried tomatoes, dark chocolate, whey powder, paprika, yeast extract, rice bran, molasses, and dry roasted soybeans
Side effects and toxicity
Gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common side effects of potassium supplements, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. Taking potassium with meals or taking a microencapsulated form of potassium may reduce gastrointestinal side effects.
Hyperkalemia is the most serious adverse reaction to potassium. Hyperkalemia occurs when potassium builds up faster than the kidneys can remove it. It is most common in individuals with renal failure. Symptoms of hyperkalemia may include tingling of the hands and feet, muscular weakness, and temporary paralysis. The most serious complication of hyperkalemia is the development of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), which can lead to cardiac arrest.
Although hyperkalemia is rare in healthy individuals, oral doses greater than 18 grams taken at one time in individuals not accustomed to high intakes can lead to hyperkalemia. All supplements sold in the U.S. contain no more than 99 mg of potassium; a healthy individual would need to consume more than 180 such pills to experience severe health risks.
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