How Your Body Uses Phosphorus

Medically reviewed by Graham Rogers, MD on October 20, 2016Written by Liv Combe
How Your Body Uses Phosphorus

What is phosphorus?

You may have heard the words “phosphorus” and “phosphate.” But you may be wondering what these terms mean and what they have to do with your diet.

Phosphorus is a mineral found in many foods like beer, cheese, beans, and fish. It is also one of the most common substances in your everyday environment and in your body. It plays an important role in the health of your kidneys, bones, muscles, and blood vessels, as well as each cell in your body.

What are phosphates?

Phosphates are a form of phosphorus. You can find phosphates in dish detergents, baking ingredients, and processed cheeses. It’s also the drug form of phosphorus, and can be taken as a dietary supplement when you can’t naturally get enough phosphorus. Certain illnesses and diseases can prevent you from getting enough phosphorus.

How phosphorus works in the body

Phosphorus works with calcium to help build bones. You need the right amount of both calcium and phosphorus for bone health. Phosphorus also plays an important structural role in nucleic acids and cell membranes. And it’s involved in the body’s energy production.

Your body absorbs less phosphorus when calcium levels are too high, and vice versa. You also need vitamin D to absorb phosphorus properly.

Symptoms of too little phosphorus

Insufficient phosphorus is referred to as hypophosphatemia. Hypophosphatemia occurs when phosphorus levels in your blood get too low. This causes your energy levels to drop. It can also cause muscle weakness, fatigue, and a low tolerance for exercise.

Insufficient phosphorus coinciding with low levels of calcium and vitamin D can lead to weaker, softer bones over long periods of time. This causes joint and muscle pain.

Phosphorus levels are tightly controlled in the body. And low levels can be a sign of another disorder.

Symptoms of too much phosphorus

A high level of phosphates in the blood is called hyperphosphatemia. Some of this condition’s symptoms overlap with those of low phosphorus. These symptoms include joint pain, muscle pain, and muscle weakness. People with high phosphorus levels can also experience itching and red eyes. Symptoms of more severe cases of high phosphorus may include severe constipation, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Your doctor can help determine the cause of high or low phosphorus levels in your body, as well as your best course of treatment.

How to get the right amount of phosphorus

Doctors may prescribe phosphate binders in order to lower phosphorus levels. These are taken with meals and snacks and limit the amount of phosphorus that your body can absorb.

Lifestyle choices can help balance out high levels of phosphorus. Be sure to get enough exercise, stay well-hydrated, and eat a balanced, low-phosphorus diet.

Foods with high levels of phosphorus

Finding foods with high phosphorus levels isn’t hard. Pork, cod, salmon, and tuna are all high in phosphorus. Good dairy sources include:

  • milk
  • chocolate
  • yogurt
  • eggnog
  • ricotta and American cheese
  • instant pudding

Bran cereal, blueberry muffins, and nachos are also high in phosphorus.

Foods that are low in phosphorus

Almost all fresh fruits and vegetables are low in phosphorus. These foods are also an important part of your daily diet. Other foods that have very low levels of phosphorus include:

  • popcorn
  • saltines
  • cornflakes
  • bread
  • eggs

How phosphorus affects the kidneys

Your kidneys help remove excess phosphorus from your blood, keeping your levels balanced and normal. Your phosphorus levels can get too high when your kidneys aren’t working correctly. This can also cause your calcium levels to rise.

Dangerous calcium deposits can potentially form in your heart, blood vessels, eyes, and lungs. People with kidney disease may need dialysis to help their kidneys clean out the excess phosphorus.

Supplements and medications

Phosphorus supplements and medications can be used in many ways. They have been proven to work as laxatives, as a treatment for urinary tract infections and urinary stones, and for treating low levels of the mineral in people with advanced malnutrition.

Phosphorus supplements might also help with bone restoration and treating excessive levels of calcium in the body due to overactive parathyroid glands.

The takeaway

Phosphorus is integral to healthy bones and a healthy body. Sometimes health conditions such as kidney disease can affect the levels of phosphorus in the body. Talk to your healthcare provider if you feel any symptoms of high or low phosphorus.

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