It is important to have high potassium foods as the basis of your diet. This is because the potassium sodium ratio of your food determines how well your cells function. Each of your cells needs a lot of potassium inside to balance the sodium outside the cell. This balance creates a difference in electric charge inside and outside the cell. This creates an electric field from the resulting electric potential (voltage) that affects every chemical process inside the cell. If the charge difference is less than optimal, everything the cell does is less than optimal.
An enormous body of scientific work has been done over the years on the details of how this electric field affects your cells. Researchers have done work showing how the field affects the shape of proteins in your cells, and how it affects the speed of chemical processes in your cells.
Cellular Electric Field Effects
The cellular electric field affects the shape of the proteins that send signals. It affects the shape of the proteins that transport ions and molecules. It affects the shape of proteins in the channels that move ions through membranes, and thus affects the movement of those ions. And similarly, it affects the pumps that actively move ions and other molecules against their concentration gradient. The ion movement triggers many of the cellular functions.
One very important effect of this cellular electric field is its effect on a critical cellular pump. This particular pump keeps the potassium and sodium balanced inside and outside your cells. It has had various names. Presently the most popular is Na+/K+-ATPase (sodium-potassium adenosine triphosphatase, also known as Na+/K+ pump, sodium-potassium pump, or sodium pump.) The balance of sodium and potassium is so important that estimates have been made that as much as 70% of all your resting energy is spent on maintaining this balance. 20% of your total energy, and up to 70% of the energy used by some cells is spent on this specific pump.
Because this pump is so important, a great deal of research has been devoted to studying it. And because the electric field in the cell has such a major influence on how well the pump works, a great number of studies have been done on the effect of the field on the pump. An early study from 1994 showed how rapidly fluctuating fields affect the sodium potassium pump.
In this study (1) the researchers isolated the sodium-potassium pumps in cell membranes. They then applied randomly fluctuating electric fields to the pumps. Then they observed the movement of ions across cell membranes. By applying the fields in varying strengths, and by varying the frequency that the electric fields changed at, they were able to find the optimal voltage (strength of the field) and the optimal rate of change of the field for maximal movement of the ions.
What this study showed is that there is an optimal rate at which the pumps in the cell membranes can operate. It also showed that this optimal rate is controlled by the voltage across the membrane, and by how quickly this voltage changes.
How Cellular Voltage Changes
This optimal voltage is controlled by the ion balance. Ions are charged atoms or polyatoms, such as potassium, sodium, calcium, chloride or bicarbonate. The greatest contribution to the voltage is the balance of potassium and sodium inside and outside your cells. Potassium sodium balance is obtained only when you get adequate amounts of potassium, and limited amounts of sodium, in your diet.
The speed of the voltage change varies for different types of cells. The voltage change results from a change in the electric charge inside and outside the cell. These changes in charge occur when potassium and sodium move back and forth across the cell membrane in channels or pumps. This movement occurs very rapidly – in microseconds. For some channels working properly, over a million ions per second can move through the channel.
What Voltage Changes Do In Cells
This results in cellular proteins changing shape rapidly. When the shape-changing proteins are located in channels and pumps that cross membranes of the cell, ions such as sodium and potassium move through them or are stopped from moving through them, depending on the resulting shape of the proteins. The shape changes occur very rapidly. And thus the voltage changes occur rapidly.
The effect on other proteins in the cell is to change their shapes also. These rapid protein shape changes allow cells to do what they are supposed to do. And when your cells do what they are supposed to do, you can do all the things that you want to do (well, maybe not all the things.)
Now this rapid movement does not mean that faster ion movement is always better for you. But it does mean there is an optimal movement that is determined by the electric field in the cell. And the electric field is determined by the potassium sodium ratio.
A Case Of A Slowed Pump Leading To Longer Life
In certain cells, slowing down some of the cell processes can result in the body functioning better. We saw this in a study that was done on the sodium potassium pump in kidney cells, discussed in this post. When the pump was slowed in these kidney cells, there was less sodium reabsorption. And when less sodium was reabsorbed, there was less excess sodium and less storage of sodium in the body. This resulted in lower blood pressure. And in Sardinians this slower reabsorption of sodium in the kidney resulted in lower blood pressure and longer life, as discussed in this post.
Presently researchers are investigating how the local charges inside the proteins (including the proteins in the pumps and channels) are affected by the overall electric field the protein lies in. And in turn how the change in local charges affects the shape of the protein, how the protein functions and how improper function causes deformities and disease in people. For any given genetic make-up, the electric field is affected by the potassium sodium ratio.
1. Recognition and processing of randomly fluctuating electric signals by Na,K-ATPase. Xie TD, Marszalek P, Chen YD, Tsong TY. Biophys J. 1994 Sep;67(3):1247-51.