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What is Potassium?

By Emma F
Updated May 21, 2024
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Potassium is a mineral represented on the periodic table of the elements with the atomic number 19, identified with the symbol K. It is a soft metal found in the Earth’s crust and in many foods, and is generally essential to maintain optimal health. Isolated by Sir Humphry Davy in 1807, this element is typically extremely reactive when it comes in contact with water, which causes a rapid release of hydrogen. It is often combined with sodium or chloride to make it more stable and produce compounds found in items such as glass, soap, and fertilizer.

Properties

Classified as an alkali atom, potassium has one electron in the outermost shell surrounding the nucleus. The low ionization energy of this electron makes the element chemically reactive. Three variations, or isotopes, exist, one of which decays such that geologists can use it for determining the age of rocks.

The metal remains solid at room temperature and typically has a melting point of 146.3°F (63.5°C) and boils at a temperature of 1,398.2°F (759°C). It is generally found in a solid state and occurs naturally in rock. It is the seventh most common on the planet, accounting for 2.4% of the mass of the Earth’s crust. Visually, it can be identified by a silvery appearance and is typically soft enough to cut with a knife.

Importance for Human Health

Potassium is one of the most important nutrients and helps all organs, body tissues, and cells to function properly. Being an electrolyte, it is essential for the basic, everyday workings of the body. The mineral also helps to regulate the water balance in and outside each cell, along with sodium. It is important for muscle growth and contractions, nerve cell function, and protein synthesis.

Common sources of this substance include:

  • Grapes and other fruits that grow on vines
  • Spinach and other leafy green vegetables
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Bananas
  • Nuts
  • Whole Grains
  • Fish

The levels of potassium in the body can have various impacts on health. Some studies have shown that maintaining proper levels in one’s diet can improve bone health in the elderly, and may prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. In other studies, low levels have been correlated with high blood pressure. Supplements sometimes lower blood pressure, but perhaps only if there is a deficiency in the mineral. Anyone taking these to alleviate their medical condition should consult a health care professional.

This mineral plays a role in cardiovascular health, and seems to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke overall. Conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis are often associated with low levels of the mineral because it does not get properly absorbed. In addition to dietary sources, it can be ingested through supplements in capsule, powder, or liquid form.

Deficiency

A lack of this mineral can cause fatigue or muscle cramps, but a severe deficiency, or hypokalemia, can cause serious problems such as irregular heart function, nervous system impairment, and even death. This condition is usually caused by gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea or vomiting, or by the use of diuretics to treat other conditions. As the mineral is regulated by the kidneys, a renal condition could also affect how much is in the body.

Overdose

It is more unusual to have elevated levels of potassium, called hyperkalemia, as excessive amounts are normally removed by the kidneys and excreted through urine. Usually hyperkalemia will be caused by a medical condition such as a major infection or renal impairment. A decrease in renal efficiency with age combined with certain medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can also lead to a build-up of the mineral.

Other Uses

Aside from its importance to human health, this mineral has many different industrial and manufacturing uses. Almost all mined potassium is used in fertilizer, as it plays a key role in plant metabolism, water usage, and the synthesis of starches and proteins. When plants grow in a potassium-rich environment, they tend to yield bigger harvests, become more drought-resistant and less prone to disease, and produce better-quality fruits and vegetables.

Various forms of this mineral are also used in making toughened glass, soap, industrial cleaners, fly paper, and dyes, as well as in tanning leather, making salt substitutes, treating flour to make it stronger, and in making baking powder. Additionally, it's used in making matches and explosives, such as fireworks, in which it serves as an oxidant. This means that it provides the firework with enough oxygen to be able to burn hot enough and fast enough so that it can fly and explode. Besides this, the inclusion of potassium gives fireworks a purple-pink color.

Safety Precautions

It's important to take safety precautions when working with this substance, as it can catch on fire when exposed to water, and is very difficult to extinguish because it's such a good oxidizer. It can also cause extreme skin and eye irritation, and can corrode tissue. It's important to avoid touching potassium without protective gear, as well as inhaling or consuming any of it, as this can severely damage the lungs and gastrointestinal tract. Repeated exposure, inhalation, or consumption can cause death. Medically speaking, this mineral interacts with several different types of medications, including Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), beta-blockers, insulin, laxatives, and Angiotensin Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors.

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Discussion Comments

By anon332152 — On Apr 27, 2013

I'm really worried. My sister had a blood test yesterday, and two hours later, she was taken to hospital with 0 potassium. She has recently had diarrhea for a month. What does this mean? Is this dangerous?

By anon163250 — On Mar 27, 2011

What are five properties of potassium?

By sundon1 — On Feb 26, 2011

will one banana a day be enough potassium for a person with a normal, healthy diet?

By anon26366 — On Feb 12, 2009

is the potassium chloride act as humidity absorbable?

By somerset — On Feb 10, 2008

The atomic symbol for potassium is K, the first letter of it's Latin name - Kalium. Potassium helps to maintain healthy nerve and brain function among other things.

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