Potassium Deficiency – Causes, Symptoms and What To Do

Potassium Deficiency - Causes, Symptoms and What To Do

Athletes are well aware of the importance of electrolytes for supporting health and for promoting optimal performance, but most of us rarely consider the fact that the body needs to maintain a constant balance of electrolytes such as potassium in order to ensure long-term health.

Electrolytes are minerals that are present in body fluids and in the cells of your body and they are vital for regulating fluid balance and other functions. Potassium is one of the primary electrolytes in your body,[1] and it is responsible for ensuring healthy electrical function.

The Importance of Potassium

Most of the potassium in your body is found in the cells, with only approximately 2% of potassium being found in your blood stream. Relatively small fluctuations in potassium levels can have severe consequences on your health.

Your body relies on electrical signals to function normally. Potassium plays a vital role in supporting electrical function and signal transmission. This means that muscular function relies on the availability of potassium, and without sufficient potassium, muscles may not have the ability to function efficiently.

Since the heart is one of the most important muscles in the body, potassium is vital for supporting heart muscle function and for supporting overall cardiovascular health.

Causes of Low Potassium Levels (Hypokalemia)

Most people who eat a healthy diet should get enough potassium naturally. However, many Americans don’t eat a healthy diet and may be deficient in potassium.

There are other factors that can contribute to low potassium levels. One of the primary reasons for low potassium levels is the use of certain medications like diuretics.

  • Diuretics are designed to rid the body of excess fluids to help to remove strain from the body, but excess urination caused by diuretics can affect the electrolyte balance in your body, particularly your levels of potassium.
  • Your kidneys play an essential role in regulating the electrolyte balance in the body and it is therefore crucial for regulating your potassium balance. Kidney insufficiency or a kidney disorders can affect your potassium levels and may lead to low levels of potassium in your body.[2]
  • The regular use of laxatives and sweating can also change the electrolyte balance and cause low potassium levels. Any prolonged loss of fluid from your body has the potential to alter the electrolyte balance and may therefore influence your potassium levels.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea can affect your potassium levels as well, but loss of potassium due to these causes is generally short lived. Your body can rebalance electrolytes fairly easily after short bouts of illness. Prolonged illness however, can be potentially detrimental, and you need to ensure your diet is rich in potassium containing foods if you are ill for prolonged periods of time.

For most individuals, ensuring your diet is high in potassium containing foods is sufficient to boost your natural potassium levels, unless you are taking chronic long-term medication or suffering from long-term illness, in which case potassium supplementation may be more appropriate. Either way, you need to ensure you speak to your physician about any supplements you take.

A Special Note about Magnesium

It is estimated that 68 to 80 percent of Americans weren’t getting the proper amount of magnesium in their system. Magnesium deficiency still frequently eludes diagnosis. If we are low in magnesium, the pumps in our cell membranes that concentrate potassium inside the cell don’t work.

We can take all the potassium we want, to the point of dangerous over-dosage, and it won’t get inside the cell where we need to have it.  That’s why your doctor will usually ask you to take a magnesium supplement along with prescribed potassium.

Make sure you are aware of the warning signs of magnesium deficiency.

Symptoms of Low Potassium (Hypokalemia)

One of the biggest problems in terms of potassium is the fact that symptoms of potassium deficiency are often mild and vague and this means that potassium deficiencies are often overlooked. This can result in devastating and sometimes life-threatening consequences.

Since potassium is vital for supporting electrical signal transmission, it’s not surprising that symptoms relating to the muscular system are top of the list of the symptoms of low potassium levels.

1. Muscle Cramps –  I’ve already mentioned that one of the causes of muscle cramps is low potassium levels – low potassium levels often result in cramps in the arms and legs[3].  When your muscles do not have sufficient potassium, your cells that form the muscles cannot function efficiently, resulting in cramps.

Cramps can range from being fairly uncomfortable to debilitating. Involuntary muscle twitches are mini cramps or indications of muscle malfunction that can be an indication that you don’t have sufficient potassium. If you are experiencing cramps on a regular basis then you should make an appointment with your physician.

2. Heart palpitations –  Heart palpitations could be a serious symptom of low potassium levels and if you are experiencing heart palpitations, then you should seek immediate medical assistance.

3. Frequent urination

4. Extreme thirst

5. General weakness and fatigue

6. Abdominal cramping –  Other symptoms can also include abdominal cramping, discomfort, bloating and constipation.

7. A tingling sensation and numbness

8. feeling dizzy or fainting could be one of the more serious symptoms of low potassium levels. Once again, if you are experiencing these symptoms then you need to see your medical practitioner urgently.

9. Low blood pressure

10. Depression, hallucinations, confusion, and delirium can also be an indication of low potassium levels and you should seek help as soon as possible.

A simple routine blood test can confirm your potassium levels. If you are struggling with one or more of the above symptoms then it may be a good idea to seek medical advice to check your potassium levels.

Once a potassium deficiency has been diagnosed, your physician may run further tests to diagnose the underlying causes of your deficiency. There are various reasons for low potassium levels and it is important to identify the underlying reasons in order to assess what treatment or if supplementation may be necessary for you.

Foods that Boost your Potassium Levels

Supporting your body nutritionally by eating foods high in potassium is one of the most important ways to ensure your body always has the potassium needed to support health.

The best dietary sources of potassium include:[4]

  • Beet greens
  • Swiss chard
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Lima, pinto and kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • Avocado

Other good sources include bok choi, beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cantaloupe, tomato, papaya, banana, squash and nuts, like almonds and Brazil nuts (which have other health benefits).

A cup of beet greens will provide you with as much as 37% of your daily potassium requirement and a cup of spinach contains nearly a quarter of your daily potassium needs.[5]

It is however important to note that cooking can destroy the potassium in these ingredients and they are best consumed raw if you are consuming them to boost your potassium levels.

Read these related articles:
1. Warning Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
2. Warning Signs of Iron Deficiency
3. Top Signs That You Have Magnesium Deficiency

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