Potassium deficiency (hypokalemia) occurs when your potassium levels are too low and can cause signs and symptoms such as:
- Muscle weakness
- Numbness or tingling
- Nausea and vomiting
- Constipation, bloating, and abdominal cramps
- Excessive urination and thirst
Mild potassium deficiency may not cause any symptoms. Potassium deficiency is defined as a serum potassium level lower than 3.5 mmol/L.
Why is potassium important for your body
Potassium is a vital mineral that helps regulate fluids in the body and promote proper functioning of nerves and muscles.
Small changes in potassium levels can have an effect on bodily functions, since the mineral is responsible for regulating the electrical activity of cells in the body. When potassium levels drop, it can affect cells with high electrical activity such as the heart, muscles, and nerves.
What causes potassium deficiency?
Although we get the majority of our potassium from our diet, a diet low in potassium is rarely the cause of hypokalemia. Potassium deficiency is most commonly caused when your body loses it from the gastrointestinal tract or kidneys due to:
- Laxative overuse
- Diuretic overuse
- Hyperaldosteronism (high aldosterone levels)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Excessive sweating
- Certain genetic conditions
What are complications of potassium deficiency?
Severe hypokalemia can cause serious consequences and can even be fatal. Complications may include:
- Paralysis or muscle damage
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Respiratory failure
- Kidney damage
How is potassium deficiency treated?
Treatment of potassium insufficiency depends on the severity of the condition and your medical history. Your doctor may recommend:
- Potassium supplements
- Increasing potassium in your diet
- Stopping any drugs that may be causing potassium deficiency
- Taking medications that help increase potassium levels
However, excess potassium can lead to a condition known as hyperkalemia, which can cause catastrophic muscle and cardiac damage. Therefore, low potassium must be treated under medical supervision.
Potassium supplements should only be taken as advised by your doctor. If your potassium levels are dangerously low, you may require hospitalization and intravenous potassium supplementation.
How to avoid potassium deficiency
Potassium deficiency can usually be avoided by eating a healthy, balanced diet. Daily recommended intake of potassium is as follows:
- Adult men: 3,400 mg
- Adult women: 2,600 mg
Foods rich in potassium include:
- Dried apricots
- Broccoli and spinach
- Plant-based milk
Talk to your doctor about your potassium levels if you are at greater risk of deficiency (for example, if you are on diuretics).
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