Potassium deficiency symptoms can be sneaky. While severe potassium deficiency can lead to death, milder deficiencies often cause few outward symptoms, which makes it easy to ignore or mistake them for something else. If you don’t correct mild deficiencies of potassium, you could risk your health over time. That’s why it’s important to know what these signs are so you can take action early to prevent larger problems down the road.
What is Potassium?
Potassium is an electrolyte found in food. It’s primarily essential for fluid balance regulation, muscle contraction, and nerve functioning. It also regulates the heartbeat, delivers nutrients, and removes any waste products from the cell.
Potassium deficiency may result in a wide range of health problems, but without knowing what low potassium looks like, it can not be easy to point it out.
Potassium Deficiency Symptoms
1. Muscle cramps and spasms
Muscle cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions of one or more muscles in the body. It may also be characterized by twitching.
Potassium is essential for the transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the muscles. This controls muscle contraction, hormonal release, and heart contraction. When the levels are lower than normal, the brain cannot effectively relay the signals. This leads to uncoordinated contractions, subsequent cramping and spasms.
2. It may result in digestive problems
Potassium is essential in the transmission of signals from the brain to the muscles in the digestive system. This causes them to contract and propel the food forward, thus promoting digestion.
Low blood potassium means weak signal transmission causing the gut muscles to move slowly, resulting in digestive problems such as bloating, gas, and constipation. A few studies have also shown that potassium deficiency may cause total gut paralysis.
3. High blood pressure
The more potassium you consume, the more sodium you lose through urine. Potassium plays an important role in regulating sodium and relaxing blood vessels. Both of these contribute to a decrease in blood pressure.
This means low potassium will cause tension build-up within the blood vessel walls and cause sodium accumulation, resulting in high blood pressure. The risk is even higher if you consume too much sodium. Too much sodium and too little potassium intake may further increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
4. It may cause palpitations
Potassium regulates every muscle contraction in the body, including heart muscles. Very low potassium may result in irregular heart muscle contractions causing palpitations and irregular heartbeats. Other things such as anxiety and stress may also contribute to palpitations.
5. Breathing problems
Breathing requires the coordination of several muscles of the diaphragm. If potassium is low, these muscles may not work correctly, making it difficult to take a deep breath leading to shortness of breath.
Extremely low levels of potassium may stop your lungs from working, which is life-threatening.
6. It may cause mood disturbances
Low potassium levels have been associated with mood disturbances and depression. This is due to the disruption in the neural signals that maintain brain functions.
7. It may cause weight gain
For every sugar molecule, you need a potassium molecule to hold it together. I.e., potassium acts as a glue to keep the sugar molecules together for effective storage as glycogen in the liver and within the muscles.
However, in the absence of adequate potassium, the body cannot effectively store glucose. This forces the insulin hormone to store sugar as fat. This can cause weight gain, obesity, and associated complications.
8. Dry skin
One symptom of potassium deficiency is dry skin. When your body doesn’t have enough potassium, it can’t retain moisture as well, leading to dry, flaky skin. You might also notice that your skin is more sensitive than usual and that you’re prone to rashes and other skin problems. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, try consuming more potassium-rich foods.
9. Premature aging
We all want to age gracefully, but unfortunately, some of us are starting the process a little earlier than we’d like. According to health experts, one of the sneakiest signs of potassium deficiency is premature aging. That’s right – if you’re not getting enough potassium, you may start to see wrinkles and fine lines before your time.
Potassium is an important mineral in the body and is responsible for maintaining fluid balance, blood pressure, and nerve function. In addition, potassium helps to keep muscles and cells working properly. Low potassium levels can lead to constipation because it can cause the bowel to not contract as well.
11. Mood swings
Potassium is essential for nerve transmission and muscle contraction. It’s also involved in blood sugar regulation and the production of hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine. When potassium levels are low, it can lead to fatigue, irritability, depression, anxiety, and mood swings.
Researchers from the University of Utah put 47 healthy adults on a low-potassium diet or a high-potassium diet for six weeks. They found that people on the low-potassium diet had more mood swings than those on the high-potassium diet.
According to another 2017 study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers looked at data from almost 53,000 adults who were followed for an average of 7 years. Participants with lower potassium levels had an increased risk of experiencing mood swings than those with moderate or high levels.
What causes potassium deficiency?
Diet plays a key role in boosting potassium levels. However, low potassium dietary intake is the least common cause of potassium deficiency. A major cause of potassium deficiency is sudden loss of fluids, often due to chronic vomiting, diarrhea, blood loss, and excessive sweating.
Other causes may include:
Stressful life events
A major life event, such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, or even a big move, can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress. When your body is in a constant state of fight or flight, it can take a toll on your health, including your potassium levels. To help offset the effects of stress, make sure you’re getting enough rest and relaxation, and try some relaxation techniques like meditation.
Prolonged use of diuretics
Diuretics are medications that help promote diuresis or the increased production of urine. They are often used to treat conditions like hypertension and edema. While diuretics can help manage these conditions, they can also lead to potassium deficiency if used for extended periods. The body excretes potassium along with sodium and water when we urinate. So, when diuretics cause us to urinate more frequently, we also lose more potassium than we would normally.
Arthritis and other inflammatory conditions
When your body is in a state of inflammation, it’s difficult for your cells to hold on to potassium. This can lead to a deficiency. Arthritis is a common inflammatory condition that can cause potassium deficiency. Other conditions that can cause inflammation and lead to a potassium deficiency include autoimmune diseases, colitis, and Crohn’s disease. If you have any of these conditions, talk to your doctor about ways to manage the inflammation and prevent potassium deficiency.
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes your body to lose fluids. When you drink alcohol, you may urinate more often and lose electrolytes, including potassium. Plus, chronic drinking can lead to dehydration, which can further contribute to electrolyte loss. If you drink alcohol regularly, be sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids and eating foods that contain electrolytes, like fruits and vegetables. You may also want to consider supplementing with a multivitamin-mineral supplement.
Menopause is often accompanied by a host of symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, and weight gain. But did you know that menopause can also cause potassium deficiency? That’s because during menopause, the body loses estrogen. Estrogen helps the body preserve potassium, so when levels drop, so does potassium. The best way to combat this is by eating a diet rich in potassium-rich foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and spinach. You can also take supplements if needed.
Eating disorders such as bulimia
An eating disorder like bulimia can cause potassium deficiency because it causes vomiting, which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. To fix this, you need to replenish your body’s fluids and electrolytes by drinking plenty of fluids and eating foods high in potassium. You may also need to take supplements or medications to correct the imbalance.
Chronic kidney disease
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a leading cause of death in the United States. It’s also the most common reason people are on dialysis. CKD is caused by the gradual loss of kidney function over time. The main symptoms of CKD are an increase in blood pressure, fatigue, and an inability to regulate urine production.
Sweating is one of the body’s natural responses to heat and stress. However, when you sweat excessively, your body produces more sweat than it should, which can lead to problems like potassium deficiency. This condition can cause muscle weakness, cramps, diarrhea, and nausea, as well as an increased risk of stroke and heart attack. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms after sweating a lot, consult your doctor immediately to rule out serious health issues.
Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a serious complication of diabetes that can lead to dangerously low levels of potassium in the blood. This condition is caused when the body can’t properly use insulin to convert sugar into energy, and instead turns to stored fat for fuel. This process creates high levels of ketones to act as a source of energy. However, too many ketones can be toxic to the body.
How much potassium does the body need?
The average body needs approximately 4700 milligrams of potassium daily.
A preliminary study conducted in 2016 revealed that less than 2% of Americans attain the recommended daily potassium requirements. It also showed sodium consumption to be way too high than potassium, especially among men. This low intake is mainly due to many processed foods in which the potassium has been destroyed.
What should you eat if you have low potassium?
The number one solution to fixing potassium deficiency is identifying and addressing the cause.
If your potassium is too low, you may need intravenous supplementation at a health facility, in addition to other treatments. Once you’re out of danger, you can now concentrate on your diet to maintain your levels within normal.
The best plant sources include:
- Lima beans: a cup cooked provides 955 milligrams
- Brocolli: 1 cup cooked provides 458 milligrams
- White beans: 1 cup cooked provides 1,004 milligrams
- Avocado: 1 whole provides 690 milligrams
- Sweet potato: 1 medium provides 438 milligrams
- Peas: 1 cup cooked provides 384 milligrams
- Bananas: 1 medium provides 422 milligrams
- Grapefruit: 1 whole provides 354 milligrams
Should you take potassium supplements?
Unless you really need them, potassium supplements, especially over the counter, are not recommended.
Studies show that high potassium intake may result in increased potassium build-up in the blood. This can lead to gut damage, arrhythmias, and irregular heartbeat, which often leads to a serious heart condition.
Final thoughts on potassium benefits:
Potassium is an essential mineral needed for different functions, including muscle contraction and nerve signaling.
A deficiency may increase your risk of digestive problems, muscle spasms, high blood pressure, mood disturbances, weight gain, breathing problems, and palpitations.
The common causes of potassium deficiency are excessive fluid loss, certain medications and health conditions, excessive alcohol intake, and genetic predisposition.
To fully experience potassium benefits, a daily intake of 4700 milligrams of potassium is recommended. However, very few people meet the required amount.
This calls for dietary supplementation through regular consumption of whole minimally processed plant foods rich in potassium.
Potassium supplements are also available; however, they are not recommended, especially when your levels are not too low.
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