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8.3E: Potassium

Potassium is the eighth or ninth most common element by mass (0.2%) in the human body, so that a 60 kg adult contains a total of about 120 g of potassium. The body has about as much potassium as sulfur and chlorine, and only calcium and phosphorus are more abundant. Potassium ions are present in a wide variety of proteins and enzymes. Potassium levels influence multiple physiological processes, including

  • resting cellular-membrane potential and the propagation of action potentials in neuronal, muscular, and cardiac tissue. Due to the electrostatic and chemical properties, \(\ce{K^{+}}\) ions are larger than \(\ce{Na^{+}}\) ions, and ion channels and pumps in cell membranes can differentiate between the two ions, actively pumping or passively passing one of the two ions while blocking the other.
  • hormone secretion and action
  • vascular tone
  • systemic blood pressure control
  • gastrointestinal motility
  • acid–base homeostasis
  • glucose and insulin metabolism
  • mineralocorticoid action
  • renal concentrating ability
  • fluid and electrolyte balance

Plasma Levels

Plasma potassium is normally kept at 3.5 to 5.0 millimoles (mmol) [or milliequivalents (mEq)] per liter by multiple mechanisms. Levels outside this range are associated with an increasing rate of death from multiple causes and some cardiac, kidney, and lung diseases progress more rapidly if serum potassium levels are not maintained within the normal range.

Diets low in potassium can lead to hypertension and hypokalemia. An average meal of 40-50 mmol presents the body with more potassium than is present in all plasma (20-25 mmol). However, this surge causes the plasma potassium to rise only 10% at most as a result of prompt and efficient clearance by both renal and extra-renal mechanisms. Hypokalemia, a deficiency of potassium in the plasma, can be fatal if severe. Common causes are increased gastrintestinal loss (vomiting, diarrhea), and increased renal loss (diuresis). Deficiency symptoms include muscle weakness, paralytic ileus, ECG abnormalities, decreased reflex response; and in severe cases, respiratory paralysis, alkalosis, and cardiac arrhythmia.

Renal Filtration, Reabsorption, and Excretion

Renal handling of potassium is closely connected to sodium handling. Potassium is the major cation (positive ion) inside animal cells [150 mmol/L, (4.8 g)], while sodium is the major cation of extracellular fluid [150 mmol/L, (3.345 g)]. In the kidneys, about 180 liters of plasma is filtered through the glomeruli and into the renal tubules per day. This filtering involves about 600 g of sodium and 33 g of potassium. Since only 1–10 g of sodium and 1–4 g of potassium are likely to be replaced by diet, renal filtering must efficiently reabsorb the remainder from the plasma.

Sodium is reabsorbed to maintain extracellular volume, osmotic pressure, and serum sodium concentration within narrow limits; potassium is reabsorbed to maintain serum potassium concentration within narrow limits. Sodium pumps in the renal tubules operate to reabsorb sodium. Potassium must be conserved also, but, because the amount of potassium in the blood plasma is very small and the pool of potassium in the cells is about thirty times as large, the situation is not so critical for potassium. Since potassium is moved passively in counter flow to sodium in response to an apparent (but not actual) Donnan equilibrium, the urine can never sink below the concentration of potassium in serum except sometimes by actively excreting water at the end of the processing. Potassium is excreted twice and reabsorbed three times before the urine reaches the collecting tubules. At that point, urine usually has about the same potassium concentration as plasma. At the end of the processing, potassium is secreted one more time if the serum levels are too high.

With no potassium intake, it is excreted at about 200 mg per day until, in about a week, potassium in the serum declines to a mildly deficient level of 3.0–3.5 mmol/L. If potassium is still withheld, the concentration continues to fall until a severe deficiency causes eventual death.

The potassium moves passively through pores in the cell membrane. When ions move through pumps there is a gate in the pumps on either side of the cell membrane and only one gate can be open at once. As a result, approximately 100 ions are forced through per second. Pores have only one gate, and there only one kind of ion can stream through, at 10 million to 100 million ions per second. The pores require calcium to open although it is thought that the calcium works in reverse by blocking at least one of the pores. Carbonyl groups inside the pore on the amino acids mimic the water hydration that takes place in water solution by the nature of the electrostatic charges on four carbonyl groups inside the pore.

Dietary Sources

Adequate potassium intake is achieved by eating a variety of foods. Potassium is present in all fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. Foods with high potassium concentrations include yam, parsley, dried apricots, milk, chocolate, all nuts (especially almonds and pistachios), potatoes, bamboo shoots, bananas, avocados, coconut water, soybeans, and bran.[Dried apricots have the highest concentration of potassium by weight of any food. Many processed foods contain no potassium.

Epidemiological studies indicate that diets high in potassium can reduce the risk of hypertension and possibly stroke (by a mechanism independent of blood pressure). The 2004 guidelines of the Institute of Medicine specify a Dietary Reference Intake (DRI]) of 4,700 mg of potassium (100 mEq); most Americans consume only half that amount per day.


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