Potassium (K) is one of the most abundant minerals in our body, an essential electrolyte for human health. Among its most important functions are to help the function of the nerves, the contraction of the muscles, the heart rate remains constant, to the circulation of nutrients in the cells and to expel waste from them (osmotic balance), to regulate the water level in the body or even to reduce the negative effects of sodium on blood pressure or intervene in the metabolism of amino acids and carbohydrates.
So that these functions are carried out optimally, potassium levels in the blood must be between 3.5 to 5.3 mEq / L, and to maintain it it is recommended to ingest a minimum of 3.5 grams per day for adults, five in the case of women during lactation . Reaching this figure is easy if we eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables – such as green leaves, grapes, tubers, bananas or citrus fruits – nuts, dairy, meat and fish.
Potassium is mainly absorbed in the intestine and what is left over is expelled through the urine, so if some of these mechanisms do not work well or we have a very poor diet, we can find ourselves with a deficit or excess of potassium in the body. In both cases, it is dangerous to health.
What happens if we have a potassium deficiency?
Potassium deficiency, known as hypokalemia or hypokalemia, can be caused by a poor diet or eating disorders, but it is not common. Most commonly, this deficit is due to persistent diarrhea or vomiting, the use of laxatives or diuretics, or chronic kidney or adrenal disease. that causes more potassium to be expelled than necessary, such as Cushing’s syndrome, or when treated with some medicines, such as insulin, albuterol, and terbutaline.
A slight deficit will not be noticeable, but if it is prolonged in time or if the deficit is very large, hypokalemia will manifest itself with the following symptoms:
•Debilidad muscle and fatigue
•Náuseas and / or vomiting and lack of appetite
•Trastornos neuromuscular, like tingles.
Hypokalemia is diagnosed through a blood test (sometimes accompanied by hypomagnesemia, or potassium deficiency), but before prescribing a supplement, the cause must be determined through a urinalysis and even an electrocardiogram. Treatment usually consists of prescribe potassium supplements, but if it is very serious, causes arrhythmias or these supplements are not enough, it may be necessary to administer it intravenously.
In the event that the deficit is presented by taking diuretics prescribed by a doctor, potassium-sparing diuretics, such as amiloride, eplerenone, spironolactone or triamterene, may be administered.
The dangers of excess potassium
Potassium in excess – hyperkalemia or hyperkalemia- It can be toxic to the body, so if the values of this mineral exceed 5 mmol / L, we would have to correct them to avoid serious alterations in the kidneys and the heart.
As with hypokalemia, it is rare for hyperkalemia to be due to an excess of this mineral in the diet. The most common is that it is due to a decrease in the elimination of potassium in the urine and, very exceptionally, to the excessive release of potassium from the cells.
These alterations may be due to:
• Acute or chronic kidney failure, which causes the kidneys not to expel all the potassium they should.
•Suprarrenal insufficiency, Addison’s disease.
• Treatments with chemotherapy
• Insulin deficiency
• Some medicines, as drugs to lower blood pressure, anti-inflammatories or potassium-sparing diuretics. This is why this condition is more common among the elderly.
•Physical exercise very intense.
Hyperkalemia can be very dangerous, in fact, it is the serious one of electrolyte alterations, because if it is above 6 mEq / l it is considered serious and can even cause fatal ventricular arrhythmias. And it is that, the greatest danger of excess potassium in the blood are cardiac alterations, malignant arrhythmias with changes in the electrocardiogramto. It can also cause nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and confusion, as well as muscle weakness, paresthesia and, in very serious situations, even respiratory paralysis.
The treatment of this serious condition is more complex than that of hypokalemia, especially when it comes to severe cases, since medical attention must be immediate. In these cases, serum with glucose and insulin and diuretics are usually administered. to quickly remove potassium.
The next step will be to locate the cause and treat it. In the event that the cause is medications, an alternative must be sought or the doses adjusted. They can also be administer drugs to reduce potassium absorption from the intestine and, in addition, patients will be recommended diets low in potassium.