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- MedlinePlus; Hyperkalemia; November 2009
- Linus Pauling Institute; Potassium; Jane Higdon, PhD; February 2004
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Potassium is a mineral in your body responsible for a number of important functions, one of which is keeping your heart beating. This is because potassium is an electrically charged particle. This charge is vital to setting off a series of exchanges known as the sodium-potassium pump that keeps you heart beating. If you have high or low levels of potassium in your body, your heart function may be affected.
Potassium in your body works to maintain a steady heartbeat due to an exchange process known as the sodium-potassium pump. Imagine this pump as something like a gate that allows sodium and potassium ions to pass into and out from the cell. When the gate has three sodium ions on the outside, it opens. This lets two potassium ions rush out. Attached to the sodium ions is a substance called adenosine triphosphate, which is a major source of energy for your cells. Once the sodium and potassium have made their switch and the sodium deposits ATP inside the cell, they go back to their respective places. The energy generated from the exchange is responsible for your heart beating at a normal pace.
Your body tightly regulates the amount of potassium in your body. If you have too much, your kidneys are signaled to release the excess via your urine. If you have too little, other hormones signal the kidneys to save as much potassium as possible. Hormones like thyroid hormone, insulin and aldosterone are all responsible for keeping your heart beating as it should. All of these factors work together to ensure your heart can beat in perfect time.
Hypokalemia is a condition that occurs when you do not have enough potassium in your body. Low potassium levels affect the body’s ability to produce the necessary reactions for the sodium-potassium pump. As a result, your heart may begin to beat irregularly. This can be dangerous for your health because your tissues may not consistently receive blood or oxygen. This life-threatening condition is typically the result of an underlying medical problem or injury, such as a severe burn. If you experience an irregular heartbeat accompanied by muscle cramping, unexplained fatigue or stomach upset, these can be symptoms of hypokalemia.
The reverse of hypokalemia is hyperkalemia or the presence of excess potassium in your body. This condition can affect heart conduction as well. This is because the sodium-potassium pump relies on the exchange rate of three sodium ions to two potassium ions. If your potassium ions begin to excessively outnumber the sodium ions, the reaction may occur at an irregular pace or not at all. This is why one of the chief symptoms of hyperkalemia is an absent or weak heartbeat, according to MedlinePlus. Because hyperkalemia can lead to cardiac arrest, it is important to seek medical treatment immediately if you experience symptoms like changes in breathing, nausea, weakness or loss of consciousness.
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