The potassium is an alkali metal element, symbol K, located in Group IA of the periodic table of chemical elements. It is preceded by lithium and sodium, followed by rubidium, cesium, and francium. Its atomic number is 19, and it is one of the most abundant minerals on the planet, which is why it is classified as a macroelement .It has essential functions for life and biological development . In its ionic form (K + ), capable of receiving an electron, potassium is one of the primordial cations and is responsible for functions such as nerve impulses, muscle contractions and, above all, the chemical and electrolyte balance of the body.The osmoregulation is another process in which potassium cations involved. It is the mechanism by which the water balance is maintained in cells, through their membranes.

What is potassium for?

Potassium is a highly reactive and chemically versatile element that participates in multiple chemical processes, from the biological level, in cells and macroscopic organisms to industrial plants.

It serves to:

  • Support processes and prevent conditions
  • Cellular biological processes
  • Processes of the various organisms
  • Production in the pharmaceutical industry
  • Chemical, agricultural and food production

Support processes and prevent conditions

The benefits of potassium in all kinds of processes, which include those that occur inside cells and in their membranes, in industrial and pharmaceutical production plants, and in the generation of useful products to humanity are very prominent.

Among the benefits of potassium are:

  • For cell development
  • For cellular osmosis
  • For the sodium-potassium pump
  • For the transmission of nerve impulses
  • For the contraction of all muscle fibers
  • For the regularization of fluids in the body
  • To control the heart rate
  • For muscle development
  • Together with the sodium ion (Na + ), regulate the electrolyte balance
  • Together with the sodium ion (Na + ), regulate fluid balance
  • Avoid cramps, which arise in the absence of potassium
  • Avoid kidney damage that occurs in the absence of potassium
  • Avoid constipation, which arises in the absence of potassium
  • Avoid some cardiac arrhythmias, which arise in the absence of potassium
  • Avoid death, which can be caused by potassium deficiency
  • As a cooling agent in nuclear power plants
  • To prepare soaps and cleaners
  • As a mild insecticide
  • Along with nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, it is an ingredient in fertilizers
  • Potassium chloride serves as a salt substitute in certain patients
  • Serves as a conservator in wines and beers
  • Potassium is added in colorants and tinctures
  • Potassium is a component of fireworks
  • Potassium nitrate is the main ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder
  • It is applied to dissolve copper
  • Added in the glass making process
  • For leather and leather dyeing
  • Potassium iodide serves to protect against radiation
  • Potassium chloride is one of the three chemicals used in the lethal injection

Cellular biological processes

Potassium is an element that participates in many biochemical processes

One of the primary functions of potassium is as a regulator of other substances and biochemical processes . Therefore, it works on cellular mechanisms such as:

  • The acid-base balance
  • The osmotic balance
  • Shaping the interstitial fluid
  • Cell reproduction

Potassium is necessary for cell formation and reproduction. In order for cells to take up nutrients and carry out their functions, a transmembrane protein called the sodium-potassium pump needs to release sodium ions (Na + ) and acquire potassium ions (K + ).

This exchange of sodium-potassium pump protein ions is necessary for the membrane electrical potential to be obtained , which in turn interferes with the absorption of solutes by the nucleus of the cell, essential for it to perform its functions.

The muscular contractions , the nerve impulses and cell volume are some of the functions involved in the potassium due to sodium-potassium pump, therefore all depend on this element animal cells.

Processes of the various organisms

In animal and plant species, potassium is a key element for subsistence. As mentioned, it participates in mechanisms such as:

  • Cell formation
  • Transmission of electrical impulses
  • Osmosis in the cell membrane
  • Functioning of the nervous system

Without potassium, muscles could not contract, nor would cells stay nourished and alive. It is easy to acquire this element, absorbing it in small amounts from the food that is consumed and among the nutrients of the land and marine waters.

The potassium deficiency in living organisms can cause symptoms such as:

  • Cramps
  • Constipation
  • Cardiac disorders
  • Kidney damage
  • Tiredness
  • In very serious cases, death

In botany , potassium nitrate (KNO 3 ) and potassium chloride (KCl) are used as fertilizers, and to a lesser extent as light insecticides, to ensure the optimal development of plant organisms.

Production in the pharmaceutical industry

In pharmaceuticals, potassium and the chemical compounds it contains are included in a wide variety of drugs, thanks to its chemical reactivity, which promotes rapid action of the active ingredient in the body.

Potassium, in medicine, is used to:

  • Substitute table salt in cases of hypertension
  • Prevent the risk of heart attacks and heart disease
  • Reduce salt and water in the body, so as not to retain them
  • Decrease inflammation in some kidney diseases

The potassium iodide (KI) is used to treat radiation poisoning and to treat rheumatism.

When there is a considerable loss of potassium in the body, a condition called hypokalemic alkalosis can arise , in which the kidneys are damaged by insufficient amounts of this element. This condition is caused by the overuse of diuretics.

Chemical, agricultural and food production

In the industrial field, potassium is used for the manufacture of multiple substances and products, such as:

  • Fertilizers (in the form of potassium sulfate K 2 SO 4 )
  • Gunpowder (in the form of potassium nitrate KNO 3 )
  • Soft drinks
  • Soaps (in the form of potassium hydroxide KOH)
  • Gold bars (brightens them, in its KCN potassium cyanide form)
  • Matches or matches (in their form of potassium chlorate KClO 4 )

Another important function of potassium is as a preservative , especially in beauty products, sweet drinks and non-fermented foods . The compound used for this purpose is potassium sorbate .

In the field of agricultural production, potassium is used both for the nutrition of some animals and to fertilize plants that have dry edges on the leaves, a sign that they lack potassium.

Potassium contraindications

Potassium hydroxide is used to make soap

Generally, the kidneys are responsible for excreting excess potassium through the urine, but when there are diseases and conditions such as:

  • Addison’s syndrome
  • hemolytic anemia
  • Severe muscle damage
  • Burns
  • Use of angiotensin inhibitor drugs
  • Disorders related to a decrease in potassium excretion
  • Excess potassium intake

It is advisable to avoid its consumption without medical supervision. People vulnerable to potassium compounds include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Lactating women
  • Small children

Potassium side effects

Consuming too much potassium has adverse effects, in some cases lethal due to its high toxicity. These will depend not only on the potassium element itself, but also on the chemical compound in question .

The most common side effect of potassium is its excess in the body . Its name is hyperkalemia or hyperkalemia , and it is a hydroelectrolyte disorder in which the kidneys cannot excrete enough potassium, causing heart problems such as arrhythmias , which can be dangerous, because the heart rhythm remains unstable.

The symptoms of hyperkalemia are:

  • Soft spot
  • Palpitations
  • Shaking in the arms or legs
  • Tingling sensation
  • Sickness
  • Vomiting
  • slow or agitated pulse
  • Chest pain

Potassium compounds have particular adverse effects, depending on their chemical activity. Among the most dangerous are:

  • Potassium cyanide (KCN): it is the most toxic and lethal; in low doses it can cause permanent damage or death.
  • Potassium carbonate (K 2 CO 3 ) and potassium iodide (KI): they can cause irritations and burns to the skin, as well as burns in the respiratory tract or gastric level if they are ingested.

The severity of the effects will increase with the dose and time of exposure to these chemicals. Faced with any of the aforementioned symptoms, it is essential to see a doctor as soon as possible.

This article is informational in nature and is not a substitute for professional medical opinion. Consult a doctor.

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Dr. Samantha Robson ( CRN: 0510146-5) is a nutritionist and website content reviewer related to her area of ​​expertise. With a postgraduate degree in Nutrition from The University of Arizona, she is a specialist in Sports Nutrition from Oxford University and is also a member of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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