What Is Phosphorus?

Iron and potassium may have more name recognition, but phosphorus plays an important role in your health, too. And you have more phosphorus in your body than any other mineral except calcium.

One of its main tasks is to serve as a building block for healthy teeth and bones. You may think that's calcium's job. But calcium needs phosphorus to make your teeth and bones strong.

"Phosphorus" comes from the Greek word phosphoros, which means "bringer of light." In drug or supplement form, it's called phosphate.

Whatever you call it, this multitasking mineral doesn't stop.

Phosphorus helps your nerves and muscles do their jobs. It's a buffer that keeps the pH level in your blood balanced. Phosphorus also helps you turn fat, carbs, and protein into energy.

This mineral is hard at work in every one of the trillions of cells in your body right now.

How Much Do I Need?

Men and women ages 19 and older need 700 milligrams of phosphorus a day. That number stays the same even if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

If you have a health issue that keeps you from getting enough phosphorus from food, your doctor can prescribe a supplement. Phosphate also treats some types of urinary tract infections and prevents calcium stones in the urinary tract.

How Do I Get It?

In a word, eat. Because phosphorus is essential to all living things, including plants and animals, it's in almost everything you eat and drink.

Phosphorus is highest in these foods:

  • Meats and other proteins: beef, chicken, fish, and organ meat like liver
  • Milk and dairy products: eggs, cottage cheese, and ice cream
  • Beans: navy, kidney, soy, pinto, and garbanzo
  • Grains: bran and wheat germ
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds

Manufacturers also add it to processed food, including:

  • Hot dogs, lunchmeat, sausage, and chicken nuggets
  • Snacks
  • Colas
  • Beer
  • Energy drinks
  • Fast food
  • Ready-to-eat meals

Most fruits and vegetables are low in phosphorus, but they have plenty of other health benefits.

Is It Possible Not to Get Enough?

It's rare to run low on it since you can find it in so many different types of food. But a shortage can sometimes happen, especially in cases of starvation or the eating disorder anorexia.

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Antacids that contain aluminum can drain your body of phosphorus if you take them for a long time.

Phosphorus deficiency, also called hypophosphatemia, can happen if you have alcohol use disorder, a blood acid condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, or certain inherited disorders.

If you have low levels of phosphorus for a short time, you won't notice any side effects. If you have a moderate or severe case, you may not feel like eating, have muscle weakness, bone pain, or numbness or tingling in your arms and legs.

Can I Get Too Much?

When they work well, your kidneys remove extra phosphorus your body can't use.

If you have a kidney condition like chronic kidney disease, you may have high levels of phosphorus. This can cause your bones to lose calcium or calcium deposits to form in your blood vessels, eyes, heart, and lungs. If you have too much phosphorus in your body for a long period of time, your chance of a heart attack or stroke goes up.

You can also get too much phosphorus, a condition called hyperphosphatemia, if you take too much of the supplement phosphate. Side effects include diarrhea and stomach cramps. Talk to your doctor about the right balance for your body.

How Can I Control the Amount of Phosphorus I Get?

If you need to lower the amount of phosphorus in your system because of a kidney condition, start with cutting back on processed foods. Your blood absorbs almost all the added phosphorus in processed foods. You only absorb about 20%-50% of the phosphorous in natural foods like meat and beans.

If you want to know how much phosphorous a processed food contains, you might not see the word "phosphorus" on the ingredient list. Look for the syllable "phos" in additives like:

  • Calcium phosphate
  • Phosphoric acid
  • Sodium acid pyrophosphate
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on October 13, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Harvard Medical School: "Precious metals and other important minerals for health."

Advances in Nutrition: "Phosphorus."

National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk."

Dietitians of Canada: "Food Sources of Phosphorus."

Dental Health Services Victoria: "Calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus."

American Society for Bone and Mineral Research: "Bone Structure and Function."

Oregon State University: "Phosphorus."

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: "Phosphorus."

Royal Society of Chemistry: "Phosphorus."

Mayo Clinic: "Phosphate Supplement (Oral Route, Parenteral Route)," "Low-phosphorus diet: Helpful for kidney disease?"

UCSB Science Line: "How many cells do we have in our body?"

University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health: "Low Phosphorus Diet."

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