Potassium is necessary for the body to function properly, but too much potassium in the blood can cause a lot of problems. Elevated potassium occurs either because the body cannot eliminate the excess effectively or because a condition or symptom is causing too much to be released into the bloodstream. Managing potassium levels is particularly important for people with kidney and heart problems, but many factors contribute to how much potassium is in the blood.
Potassium is an electrolyte required for essential actions such as muscle contraction and nerve function. It keeps the heart beating regularly and helps cells absorb nutrients and eliminate waste. The right amount of potassium can also help counter the negative effects of sodium on cardiovascular health.
Hyperkalemia is the technical term for too much potassium in the body. The condition can cause nausea, weakness, and paralysis, as well as an irregular heartbeat, which can be a medical emergency. To understand what causes hyperkalemia, it is important to know a little about how the body regulates potassium levels.
One important responsibility of the kidneys is the regulation of potassium in the blood. The organs work as a filter, eliminating excess minerals as waste and returning necessary nutrients to the body. Kidney damage interrupts this function, which is why kidney failure or chronic kidney disease is the most common cause of high potassium in the blood.
Another cause of high potassium is Addison's disease, a rare condition that affects the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys. This disease can be associated with autoimmune diseases or develop as a result of certain medications. With Addison's, the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol, which the body needs to respond to stress. If untreated, a life-threatening complication, Addisonian crisis, can develop. It can be brought on by injury, illness, or infection, when the body cannot produce enough cortisol to cope with added stress. In addition to low blood pressure and hypoglycemia, an Addisonian crisis also causes high potassium in the blood.
Several types of medication can lead to high potassium. ACE-inhibitors, AR blockers, and beta blockers are different classes of blood pressure medication that can raise potassium levels. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications can have an effect as well. Herbal supplements such as milkweed, lily of the valley, Siberian ginseng, and others can increase potassium, too.
Diuretics are a special class of drug that helps the body eliminate excess fluid to help control blood pressure. There are several types of diuretics. Some cause the body to excrete too much potassium, which leads hypokalemia or low potassium. Others, potassium-sparing diuretics, prevent this loss. People taking diuretics should talk with their doctor about what type they are taking and follow the dietary recommendations to avoid potassium imbalance.
Some conditions cause increased potassium by releasing too much from the cells. Anything that causes mass damage to cells can result in excess potassium, including trauma, burns, destruction of red blood cells, and rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is the destruction of muscle cells that can result from injury, drug abuse, or alcoholism.
Treatment depends on the severity of the imbalance. Very high levels of potassium that are causing changes in heart function are treated in a hospital, typically in an intensive care unit. Some emergency interventions include IV calcium to assist muscle function or the administeration of glucose and insulin to bring the level down while determining the underlying cause quickly. Some doctors may prescribe potassium wasting diuretics.
A physician may make adjustments to blood pressure medications or diuretics for patients with elevated potassium levels. People with end-stage renal disease or worsening kidney problems may require dialysis to maintain proper electrolyte levels, including potassium. One of the biggest things someone with elevated potassium can do to manage excess potassium at home is to change their diet.
Many foods low in potassium, but it is important to pay attention to portion size. Good choices include apples, blueberries, celery, rice, corn, lettuce, strawberries, zucchini, and many more. Avoid foods high in potassium, including bananas, avocado, baked beans, broccoli, potatoes, and most nuts and seeds.
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