Potassium serves many important roles in your body, including muscle function, maintenance of acid-base balance, production of proteins and normal function of your heart. Conditions such as injuries and burns, exposure to certain drugs or toxins, endocrine abnormalities and kidney damage can lead to high levels of potassium. Proper kidney function, in particular, plays a critical role in controlling potassium levels in your body.
You consume potassium in your diet from foods such as meats, vegetables and fruits, and dairy products. Potassium intake greater than the needed levels, 4.7 grams per day, is excreted by your kidneys. This requires a careful balance of multiple electrolytes by the kidney including sodium and chloride in the nephrons, the filter-like structures that make up the kidney. Matching of potassium intake from your diet and excretion by the kidney maintains a steady level of 3.5 to 5 milliequivalants per liter in your blood despite fluctuations in daily intake.
Damage to your kidneys can result from conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as following traumatic injury or exposure to toxins. The resulting damage impairs the ability of your kidneys to maintain the balance of electrolytes in the nephrons leading to inappropriate excretion or retention of the electrolytes and chemicals that should be filtered. The excess potassium consumed in the diet cannot be excreted by the damaged kidney. This results in a buildup of potassium in your body.
Elevated levels of potassium can produce a wide range of symptoms and even death. Early symptoms of high potassium include nausea, weakness and numbness and tingling. Your heart is also very sensitive to changes in the levels of potassium in your body. High levels of potassium can lead to a weak or slow pulse. As levels get higher, your heartbeat can become irregular. This poses the greatest risk from high potassium levels in patients with impaired kidney function. If the levels become too high, irregular heartbeat can ultimately lead to cardiac arrest and death.
Controlling Potassium Levels
The National Kidney Foundation suggests patients with impaired renal function, such as those with chronic kidney disease, follow a renal diet that limits excess potassium intake. This involves avoiding certain fruits, vegetables and other foods that are high in potassium. Because nearly all foods contain potassium, the National Kidney Foundation also stresses moderation in dietary planning. Another tip involves leeching vegetables that are high in potassium so that they may still be consumed. Consultation with your physician or a renal dietician is recommended for specific dietary concerns.
Jesse Sulzer, MD, PhD is a professional writer whose work has appeared on various websites. Sulzer is a general surgery resident at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Additionally, he earned a Ph.D. in physiology and has more than 10 years of biomedical research experience.