Potassium as a mineral is very important for healthy heart function. A deficiency can have dangerous consequences, especially for the heart. What happens when the body is deficient and how you can best meet the need?
What effect does potassium have on the heart?
For a long time, the importance of the mineral potassium for health was not sufficiently recognized. Today it is known in medicine that potassium is of great importance for healthy heart function. In addition to magnesium, potassium forms electrical impulses in the heart cells and is important for the transmission of these electrical signals from cell to cell. To accomplish this task, the concentration of potassium should be within the normal range, approximately between 3.6 and 5.2 mmol per liter. This value can be checked by a doctor by taking a blood sample. A deficiency affects the nerve and muscle cells in particular, which are then no longer properly stimulated. If there are significant deviations in the potassium level, the heart gets out of rhythm.
Causes of potassium deficiency
The decisive factor for a healthy composition of minerals is their distribution and balanced proportion. Unlike other minerals, potassium cannot be stored by the body. It must be ingested through food. Excretion occurs to a large extent via the kidneys, but also via digestion and skin.
The concentration of potassium in the blood changes in the following diseases and circumstances:
- Severe vomiting
- Frequent diarrhea
- Taking diuretics (water medication)
- Consequences of taking antibiotics and cortisone
- Adrenal Gland Diseases
Cardiac arrhythmias in potassium deficiency
A potassium deficiency increases the likelihood of developing cardiac arrhythmia. Because the pumping activity of the heart is based primarily on the interaction between differently charged electrical particles inside and outside the cells. If there is too little potassium, there can be an increased activity of the pacemaker and muscle cells in the blood, which can cause cardiac arrhythmias.
Patients who already have heart disease or are taking the heart drug digoxin are particularly at risk if potassium levels are too low. In severe cases, dangerous cardiac arrhythmias can occur, which worsen cardiac insufficiency and, in the worst case, can even lead to heart failure.
A small decrease in the level of potassium in the blood does not usually cause any symptoms. Occasionally, heart palpitations can occur. A large decrease in potassium can cause weakness, cramps, tremors, and even paralysis of the muscles.
The lack of potassium also promotes calcification of the arteries, which in turn affects the blood flow to the heart. If the so-called hypokalemia persists for a longer period, kidney problems can develop. These manifest themselves in that those affected have to urinate frequently and drink large quantities of water.
How much potassium does the heart need?
According to the German Society for Nutrition, adults should consume 4,000 milligrams of potassium through food every day. This amount can be achieved with a balanced diet. Those who eat a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables, and legumes will be able to meet this need. However, the need for potassium increases due to our high-salt (ready-to-use) food. Then we take in more sodium, which contributes to the fact that potassium is excreted.
Potassium is water soluble and can therefore also be lost during cooking. Vegetables should therefore be steamed or fried more often so that the important electrolyte is not lost. The less water a food contains, the more potassium it contains.
What happens when there is an excess of potassium?
An oversupply of potassium is rare since too much potassium is excreted through the kidneys and not stored in the body. An excess of potassium usually occurs with impaired kidney function or as a side effect of medication. Blood transfusions, burns, or infections can also be a cause of too much potassium. If the potassium value is increased, as with a deficiency, in the worst case, cardiac arrhythmias can occur.