What is Hyperkalemia? And How Can It Hurt Your Kidneys?

Hyperkalemia is a common metabolic issue in patients with chronic kidney disease and is a condition where a person’s potassium level is higher than normal. Potassium is a chemical that is critical to the function of nerve and muscle cells, including those in your heart. It is a mineral found in food, it is not produced inside the body and is classified as an electrolyte. Electrolytes are responsible for conducting electrical impulses and assisting in a number of functions. These functions include blood pressure, normal water balance, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, digestion, heart rhythm and pH balance (acidity and alkalinity).

Hyperkalemia afflicts patients with poor kidney function or those on medications which affect kidney function. It may also afflict those who take too many potassium supplements or elderly patients. Excess potassium is normally removed from the blood by the kidneys and released through urine.

Most research indicates healthy adults will not develop hyperkalemia unless they have chronic kidney disease or take those medications. This is why there is little in the way of warnings about too much potassium in healthy adults. When the kidneys cannot do their function, excess potassium begins to build up in the blood.

Hyperkalemia can create life-threatening heart rhythm changes or cardiac arrhythmias. It can cause ventricular fibrillation which is where the lower parts of your heart flutter rapidly instead of pumping blood. Untreated, an extremely high amount of potassium in your blood can make your heart stop beating, causing death. It is a major cause of death for chronic kidney patients.

More and more companies are increasing the amounts of potassium they put into their foods. Doing this can create even more problems for those suffering from Chronic Kidney Disease. Chronic Kidney Disease affects over 30 million Americans and is usually the result of high blood pressure and diabetes. It is the the chronic inability of the kidneys to carry out their purpose, which is screening the blood. If both kidneys are unable to carry out their tasks toxins and excess materials begin to build up in the blood and can cause damage to other organs.

Chronic Kidney disease only gets worse over time if not treated properly and can result in the total failure of the kidneys. There is no cure for this illness and patients need to make lifestyle changes and possible undergo dialysis
treatment to screen their blood.

Symptoms of chronic kidney disease include fatigue and tiredness, swollen ankles and feet, shortness of breath, feeling nauseated and blood in urine. Patients have an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.

While too much of anything is a bad thing, too little potassium can also lead to problems. The key is balance. Potassium has shown to lower blood pressure, especially for people with high blood pressure. Individuals with salt sensitivity, those who gain a 10% spike in blood pressure after eating salt benefit as a potassium-rich diet may eliminate salt sensitivity. Potassium can reduce the risk of stroke. Studies have also shown it to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. And, good news for kidneys, if a person does not have chronic kidney disease, potassium can reduce the risk of kidney stones significantly.

Food additives makes life harder for patients with chronic kidney disease. Food additives add more sodium to the blood stream in addition to having an affect on phosphate levels. Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavor or enhance its taste, appearance, or other qualities. Some additives are natural, but processed foods use artificial additives in addition to some natural ones.

Food additives may also be defined as substances added to the food indirectly to help with packaging and preservation. There are a variety of different additives put into food, too many to name all of in detail.

Anyone suffering from chronic kidney disease should talk to their specialists about obtaining a full list of potassium additives and where they could be found so they may avoid them. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, among others are added to improve nutritional value.

These can be found in wheat, flour, bread, rolls, and others including milk. Propionic acid, calcium and sodium salts of propionic acid are used to maintain appearance, palatability, and wholesomeness and prevent spoilage. They are typically used in bread, pie filling, cake mixes, potato chips, and other foods. Spices (cloves, ginger, cinnamon etc.), citrus oils, amyl acetate are used to improve flavour of certain foods.

These can be found in spice cake, gingerbread, ice cream, and soda as well as others. Annatto, carotene, cochineal, and chlorophyll nitrates give characteristic color to certain foods. They can be found in baked goods, sweets, carbonated beverages, cheese, margarine, ice cream, and meat products.

Lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, gum arabic, carboxymethyl cellulose, carrageenan are used to keep consistency in foods. These are in bakery products, cake mixes, salad dressings and other foods and drinks, including beer.

Potassium acid tartrate, tartaric acid, sodium bicarbonate, lactic acid, citric acid, adipic acid, fumaric acid are used to control acidity or alkalinity in certain foods. And these are found in cakes, cookies, biscuits, crackers, waffles, muffins, butter, processed cheese, cheese spreads, chocolates, carbonated beverages and confectionery.

Chlorine dioxide, chlorine, potassium bromate, iodate are used as maturing and bleaching agents. They are found in wheat flour (to make it white), certain cheeses. While glycerin, magnesium carbonate, sodium nitrate, calcium phosphate are used to retain moisture, prevent caking, or are used for curing. These are found in coconut, marshmallows, table salt, garlic as well as onion powder, frankfurters, sausages, dietetic foods.

With all these foods loaded with potassium additives, it is important to understand the consumer has some control over what they eat and over the potassium they ingest. Those who need to reduce and control their potassium intake should start by talking to their renal dietitian about what they can and cannot eat.

The next step is, of course limiting foods that are high in potassium, including limiting milk and milk products or replace with nondairy substitutes. They should begin to pour out the liquids from canned fruits and vegetables as they contain enormous amounts of potassium. They must learn to avoid salt substitutes and other seasonings with potassium and read labels on packaged foods. They must
also pay attention to serving sizes as well.