Phosphorus Factoids

• Phosphorus, the chemical element with the symbol P, is the second most abundant mineral in the human body, after calcium. There are about 700 grams of phosphorus in the average adult body, about 85% of which is found in the skeleton and teeth in the form of calcium phosphate crystals. The remaining 15% is distributed throughout every cell of the body along with extracellular fluid.

• Phosphorus is sometimes called the “Devil’s Element” because of its explosive nature and because it was the 13th element to be discovered (in 1669). It is not found in nature on its own, but combined with other minerals to form phosphates.

• Phosphorus performs many functions in the human body. As a component of bones and teeth, phosphorus, along with calcium, plays an important role in bone mineralization and has proven to be very useful in treating bone problems such as rickets, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis and in treating tooth and gum problems as well. As a component of every cell membrane, phosphorus is also important in metabolic processes.

• Other functions of phosphorus include assisting with muscle contraction and nerve conduction, helping to regulate the heartbeat, helping to maintain acid/base balance, and facilitating the delivery of oxygen to the cells.

• Phosphorus also acidifies urine, thereby reducing the likelihood of kidney stone formation.

• The Recommended Dietary Allowance for phosphorus for adults is 700 mg. However, in the United States, the average intake is about 1,300 mg/day for men and about 1,000 mg/day for women. Thus, the average American diet contains more than enough phosphorus. However, in a healthy person with normally functioning kidneys, the body is very adept at adjusting for a high phosphorus intake, so these intake levels are usually not a problem, unless the diet is simultaneously seriously deficient in calcium. The combination of too much phosphorus and too little calcium is not conducive to good health. The ideal ratio of the two nutrients is 1 to 1. The Upper Tolerable Limit for phosphorus has been set at 4,000 mg/day and 3,000 mg/day for those age 70 and older.

• Phosphorus serum levels are regulated by the parathyroid hormone (PTH) and vitamin D in the small intestine and bones. The normal serum level of phosphorus for most adults is between 2.4 and 4.1 mg/dl. A phosphorus concentration level below 2.4 mg/dl is diagnosed as hypophosphatemia. Phosphorus deficiency rarely occurs as the result of diet alone and is usually indicative of a serious medical condition.

• The symptoms of phosphorus deficiency include weakness, lack of appetite, anemia, nausea and vomiting, mental confusion, and bone pain and easily broken bones. A phosphorus serum level below 1.5 mg/dl is associated with more serious cardiac and muscle dysfunction that can be life threatening. Phosphorus deficiency is treated with a high phosphorus diet and phosphorus supplements.

• A very high phosphorus/very low calcium diet can produces the opposite effect of phosphorus toxicity or hyperphosphatemia. characterized by high serum levels of phosphorus. This condition is also associated with increased bone demineralization and susceptibility to fractures. Other symptoms include muscle spasms, seizures, arrhythmia, shortness of breath, calcification of soft tissues, and possible kidney damage.

• Sodium phosphate is frequently used as a method of preservation for processed foods. This explains why a diet that is heavy in processed foods tends to be high in phosphorus.

• Phosphorus is found in DNA and RNA.

• Phosphorus is used industrially for fertilizer and in detergents and pesticides.