Your liver is the most complex organ in your body. It works as a filter for toxins, keeps the blood glucose at a normal level, produces bile for digestion, stores nutrients and manufactures some blood proteins. Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute explains that potassium, meanwhile, is important for maintaining the integrity of cell membranes and functions as a vital electrolyte.
Potassium is one of the six macrominerals — those you need in much greater than trace amounts. The others are sodium, chloride, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, the Merck Manuals reports. All are essential to the structure and function of your body. The diet of your ancestors was much different than the modern human diet — it was richer in potassium and had much less sodium. The diet has changed, but the body has not. Your body holds on to sodium and is much less sparing of potassium.
A careful balance of potassium is crucial, the Pauling Institute explains. Too much or too little is dangerous. If you follow a balanced diet, you may never be aware of the balancing act of the electrolyte minerals. Potassium is absorbed through the small intestine and the excess is excreted, mostly into the urine by the kidneys. It isn’t processed by the liver, but a severe lack of potassium can disrupt liver function. A great excess of potassium can stop the heart.
Considering all the functions of the liver, it is easy to see how liver disease affects the entire body. Potassium is used by the liver cells and by every other cell in your body. If you have liver disease or some types of heart disease, fluid can build up in the tissue. The use of diuretics to remove the excess fluid can cause both loss of potassium and eventually contribute to kidney damage. Damaged kidneys are not as able to maintain the balance of potassium.
A diseased liver doesn’t regulate your blood glucose level well. This can interfere with the glucose metabolism, and in turn with potassium being available to the cells. The most common causes for low potassium with liver disease are cirrhosis from alcoholism where the diet is poor, according to the "University of Iowa Family Practice Handbook." In a very sick patient, the electrolyte mineral balancing act is extremely difficult. Adding potassium to ailing kidneys may cause a dangerous increase in the level. Not adding potassium at all can lead to worse liver failure.
When the liver is failing due to cirrhosis, hepatitis or other causes, toxins from metabolism build up in the blood and tissues. This affect the whole body and one of these toxins, ammonia, can cause a serious condition of the brain called hepatic encephalopathy. Low potassium levels contribute to this condition. The MedlinePlus online medical reference explains that this disorder causes confusion and mental changes, and can lead to coma and death. About 80 percent of the people who become comatose do not recover. If treated in the early stages, the condition may be reversible.
In health or disease, potassium is essential for liver function and the liver is essential to your life. You should maintain a balanced and varied diet and only take potassium by supplement if a doctor prescribes it; the small amounts in multi-vitamins are not harmful. Potassium is fairly abundant even with your modern diet. Avoid excess use of alcohol to preserve the health of the liver. Vaccination is available for both hepatitis A and B and will protect the liver from these diseases. There is no vaccination yet for hepatitis C and the other types.
- “The Language of Medicine,” 6th Edition; Davi-Ellen Chabner, BA, MAT; 2001
- Oregon State University — Linus Pauling Institute: Potassium
- The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library: Nutritional Disorders — Introduction
- “University of Iowa Family Practice Handbook,” 3rd Edition; Peter P. Toth, M.D., Ph.D.; 1997
- MedinePlus: Hepatic Encephalopathy