Two essential electrolytes, sodium and potassium, are elements our bodies require in order to sustain life. Before the late 1700’s, potassium was not understood as a separate element from sodium.
Depending on your health, your doctor may regulate the amount of sodium and potassium you intake through your diet. For example, someone with kidney disease may be on a renal diet and will have a more difficult time excreting excessive sodium and potassium through the urine. These elements may build up excessively in their blood –causing health problems.
For persons who are otherwise healthy and are exercising, it is important to have sufficient potassium and sodium in their diet. This is why sports drinks such as “Gatorade” market that they replenish needed electrolytes like potassium and sodium.
Sodium (Na) and potassium (K) are both elements on the periodic table and have similar properties. Both are reactive Alkali metals and are abundant on the earth’s crust and in the ocean. Because of their high reactivity when in pure form, they are usually present within our environment as compounds or salts. Both are used in making soaps. Both are generally found in our diet. Both are essential for humans because sodium and potassium allow our nerves to conduct
instantaneous impulses and are used in our bodies' cellular function. Both elements can be present in radioactive forms, in fact a form of potassium decays within our bodies every second as a radioactive isotope, 40K. After a nuclear accident, a person’s radiation exposure can be estimated by performing a blood test to see the percentage of 23Na, a reactive sodium isotope, as compared to the body’s natural 24Na sodium in the blood.
Sodium (Na) not only conducts nerve impulses within the body, but also regulates the body’s water retention and blood pressure. Although sodium is essential for our body, usually in our diet as sodium chloride, care must be taken to avoid excessive intake of sodium –as this can contribute to higher blood pressure and cause cardiovascular problems.
Unless advised otherwise by a physician, in general the recommended daily consumption of sodium is about 2.3 grams per day. With many foods high in sodium, it can be easy to accidentally consume more than this recommended amount. Foods high in sodium may include soy sauce, salad dressing, processed meats, cheese, soups, and pickles.
Make a habit of reading the nutrition facts in order to avoid consuming too much sodium. Potassium (K) is named after “potash”. Potash has been formed for centuries out of burnt wood or plants, to form dried salts, although the actual element of potassium (K) was not discovered until 1807. Since plants are full of potassium, “potash” salts are potassium salts. Although plants are a good source of potassium, few plants have sodium. As you may know, most plant fertilizers have a lot of potassium, in the form of sulfate, nitrate, and chloride. Potassium is essential for nerve conduction and for cellular function within the body. Persons with sufficient potassium in their diet have a lesser chance of high blood pressure and stroke, although persons with illnesses such as kidney disease may develop too much potassium in their blood (hyperkalemia) and be at risk of cardiac arrhythmia. One must be very careful if taking supplemental potassium pills, as overdose of supplemental potassium can cause damage to the stomach or intestine. Healthy foods that help provide sufficient potassium include potatoes, bananas, avocados, fish, yogurt, beans, spinach, and orange juice. (10)
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