Phosphorus is an essential mineral that plays a crucial role in functioning and structure of living cells in the body and in creating energy. It is also required for formation of bones, building of tissues and their repair. Adults require at least 700mg of dietary intake of this mineral. This can be got through many foods and most people do not suffer from a deficiency. However, there are certain people who can suffer from a phosphorous deficiency. Identifying these vulnerable groups is important to maintain the right levels of phosphorous.
Causes of Phosphorus Deficiency
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Patients who suffer from COPD run the risk of suffering from phosphorus deficiency. It is estimated by researchers that 20 – 50% of those with COPD suffer from side effects of their medication and this could be the root cause of depleted phosphate levels.
Medications: Taking certain medications such as diuretics, corticosteroids, B2 adrenergic bronchodilators and theophylline, result in higher levels of phosphorus getting excreted from the kidneys. If you take antacids that contain magnesium or aluminum they can prevent optimal absorption of phosphorus by the intestinal tract. Often low phosphorous levels are rarely detected as no routine blood tests are done for them. You must tell your doctor the list of all medications you are taking so that they can run the required tests. If left undetected and untreated, low phosphorus levels can build up and cause many fatal illnesses such as respiratory failure.
Hypophosphatemia: This is one result of low phosphorus levels in the blood. Due to hypophosphatemia, people suffer from muscle weakness, heart failure, respiratory failure, seizures and coma. Checking the blood for serum phosphate concentration levels can help doctors detect if a person is suffering from this illness. Treatment consists of giving the patient adequate serum phosphate supplements. Around 2% of patients who are hospitalized can suffer from hypophosphatemia of which 10% will be alcoholics. The following are some of the causes of hypophosphatemia:
- Acute alcoholism
- A patient recovering from diabetic ketoacidosis
- A patient receiving TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition)
- Severe burns
- Providing food for a person who is severely undernourished and malnourished or who has been starving for a long period
- Severe respiratory alkalosis
- Vitamin D Deficiency
- Chronic diarrhea
If a person suffers from chronic hypophosphatemia if could be because he or she has decreased renal re-absorption that could be due to:
- Hormonal disturbances like hypothyroidism or Cushing’s syndrome
- Electrolyte disorders like hypokalemia or hypomagnesemia
- Using diuretics for long periods
Causes of severe chronic hypophosphatemia are:
- Chronic malabsorption symptoms or severe starvation that is combined with chronic diarrhea and vomiting
- Long term use of antacids that contain high levels of aluminum that binds phosphorous
- Patients on end-stage kidney diseases can suffer from high levels of hypophosphatemia.
Diagnosis of hypophosphatemia
When blood tests are done, most causes of hypophosphatemia will be readily displayed in burns patients, re-feeding patients and those suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis. Phosphorus supplements and IV serum phosphate are given depending on the severity of the symptoms.
Phosphorus Deficiency Symptoms
Some of the general deficiency symptoms of phosphorus are:
- Weak bones
- Discomfort and pain in joints
- Tooth decay
- Poor appetite
- Fatigue and loss of stamina
- Loss of weight
- Restricted growth
- Muscle weakness
Patients who suffer from hypophosphatemia or other phosphorus deficiency illnesses can display many of the above signs. Advanced hypophosphatemia can combine with rhabdomyolysis especially if the patient is a severe alcoholic.
Health providers advise people to first get their dietary requirement of phosphorus from foods by eating a balanced and varied diet. Taking up to 250mg of phosphorous a day does not cause any harm. Anything in excess of this can cause stomach pain and diarrhea. Very high doses taken for a prolonged period will result in reducing the amount of calcium in the body and therefore many attendant bone problems.
The following are some of the inorganic phosphates that are recommended as supplements by doctors. Some of them could be combined with multivitamins.
- Dibasic and monobasic potassium phosphate
- Dibasic, monobasic and tribasic sodium phosphate
- Phosphatidyl choline and serine
Elemental phosphorous is very toxic and is a yellow or white substance that feels waxy. It burns when it is exposed to air and is meant to be used only for homeopathic treatments.
Precautions while taking phosphorus supplements
All medications whether prescription or non-prescription must be taken only under the advisement of a doctor. Too much phosphate in the blood can lead to calcification of soft tissues and organs. This can cause interference with the way the body uses calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium. Excessive phosphates also causes diarrhea. Anyone on phosphorous supplements such as athletes must take them only occasionally and even then only when a medical professional advises them about the correct dosage etc.
Most western diets contain 2-4 times higher levels of phosphorus than calcium. An ideal diet according to nutritionists must contain a good balance of both these minerals. Some of the foods that contain very high ratio of phosphorous to calcium are poultry, meat and carbonated beverages. This can lead to low levels of calcium in the body. Stored levels of calcium will need to be used to meet the body’s daily requirements. Hence, excessive deposits of phosphorous causes brittle bones, gum and teeth problems. The ideal balance of phosphorous and calcium will reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Phosphorus plays a crucial role in the body on its own and in conjunction with calcium. It is also needed to maintain a good balance of other minerals and vitamins like iodine, magnesium, vitamin D and zinc. Alcohol, diabetes and starvation are some of the causes of phosphorous deficiency. Treatment with adequate phosphorous supplements and a good diet can rectify this deficiency and maintain good health.