Potassium is one of the body’s most important minerals. It is present in every cell of the human body.
In fact, it is one of the body’s four main electrolytes, along with sodium, magnesium and calcium. Being an electrolyte, potassium helps maintain a proper water balance in the body as well as regulate blood pressure. It also plays a role in the digestion of proteins and carbohydrates.
In addition, this important mineral is needed for muscle strength, nerve functioning, proper digestion and a healthy cardiovascular system.
The recommended daily amount of potassium is :
- 3,000 mg per day for ages 1 to 3
- 3,800 mg per day for ages 4 to 8
- 4,500 mg per day for ages 9 to 13
- 4,700 mg per day for ages 14 and older
- 5,100 for women who are breastfeeding
A potassium deficiency, also known as hypokalemia, is most common in people taking diuretics.
Use of some antibiotics, diarrhea or vomiting, excess use of laxatives, chronic kidney disease, eating disorders (such as bulimia), a low magnesium level, excess alcohol intake, excessive sweating and a folic acid deficiency may also lead to a low potassium level.
A simple routine blood test can confirm your potassium level. The normal range is between 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). Blood potassium level lower than 2.5 mmol/L requires urgent medical attention.
Potassium deficiency can produce an array of symptoms. However, as this deficiency is often overlooked, it can result in devastating and sometimes life-threatening consequences.
Here are the top 10 signs and symptoms that you are not getting enough potassium.
1. Muscle Cramps
Frequent muscle cramps, whether during the day or night, is a very common sign of a potassium deficiency. Cramping in the legs, feet and arms is common.
Potassium is one of the electrolytes found in all body cells, including muscle and nerve cells. It works with sodium to maintain your cells’ electrical charges, which control muscle contractions and functioning.
When this mineral is low in the body, the cells do not send or receive the proper electrical signals to control muscle contractions.
This in turn increases the chance of suffering from frequent muscle cramps. The cramps can last from a few seconds to minutes.
As significant fluid loss from profuse sweating may cause low levels of potassium, it is important to replenish your body’s potassium after exercise.
If you experience cramps on a regular basis, make an appointment with your doctor.
2. Muscle Weakness and Damage
A low potassium level can have a huge impact on your muscle health. It can impair the function of muscle cells as well as damage the muscles. This leads to profound weakness and muscle stiffness, aching and tenderness.
Also, potassium is needed for healing the muscles on a cellular level. Hence, there may also be an increase in muscle tearing or straining with little or no effort.
If your muscles feel weak and tired for no apparent reason, you need to get your potassium level checked.
3. General Fatigue
Another common symptom of low potassium is a general feeling of fatigue. This kind of fatigue is not due to overexertion or overworking. In fact, the feeling of fatigue and tiredness has no explainable reason.
Every cell in the body needs the right amount of potassium to function, and an inadequate amount of this mineral can affect the functioning of cells as well as organs. Thus, a deficiency of this mineral can lead to fatigue and general weakness.
You may have to put a little extra effort into performing your regular daily activities if your potassium level is low.
As fatigue can be due to several health problems, it’s best to consult with your doctor to find out the exact cause.
4. Tingling Sensations
Potassium is important for the health of your nerves.
A low level of this mineral can affect the electrical impulses that pass from the skin and muscles to the spinal cord and brain. This can lead to a loss of sensation along the outer extremities, resulting in the tingling sensations.
Usually, this tingling sensation is noticed in the fingers, toes, hands, feet, arms and legs. Low potassium may also contribute to muscle twitching.
If you experience tingling sensations in your arms and legs, along with other symptoms mentioned here, there is a strong possibility that you are low in potassium. A simple blood test can confirm this.
5. Heart Palpitations
A potassium deficiency can also affect your heart health. It can cause an irregular heartbeat rhythm and heart palpitations for no apparent reason at all.
Low potassium can disrupt the rhythmic, coordinated contractions of the heart that are controlled by electrical impulses.
On the other hand, an adequate amount of potassium in the body helps protect your heart from heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
No matter what, if you are experiencing heart palpitations, it is important to see a doctor. The cause behind heart palpitations needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
6. Mental or Emotional Issues
Potassium is important for mental health and brain function. It helps maintain the electrical conductivity of the brain and nerve transmissions.
Plus, it plays a key role in transporting serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of well-being and happiness. This is why a low potassium level can contribute to confusion, mood swings, depression, hallucinations and delirium.
A 1992 article published in Neuropsychobiology reported a relationship between sodium, magnesium and potassium in depressed patients.
Another 2009 study published in General Hospital Psychiatry reports that hypokalemia can result in depression.
The mineral potassium is important for the digestive system, which is made of smooth muscles that contract rhythmically to aid digestion of food.
Low blood levels of potassium can disrupt the functions of the involuntary muscles of the stomach and intestines.
Proper functioning of these muscles is needed for digestion, absorption and metabolism to occur. Poor functioning can lead to constipation.
Apart from constipation, there may also be symptoms like abdominal bloating, pain and cramping.
As constipation can be caused by a number of problems, talk with your doctor to rule out the possibility of a nutritional deficiency such as potassium.
8. High Blood Pressure
Potassium helps relax blood vessels, and without enough of it, they can become constricted, which causes blood pressure to rise. Potassium also balances out the negative effects of sodium.
When potassium is low, the balance of sodium in the body gets disturbed. This can also affect your blood pressure.
A 2008 study published in the American Society of Nephrology reports that low levels of potassium in the diet may be as important as high levels of sodium, especially among African Americans who suffer from high blood pressure.
According to this study, the relationship between low potassium and high blood pressure remained significant even when age, race and other cardiovascular risk factors (high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking) were taken into account.
Apart from low potassium and high sodium intake, many other factors contribute to high blood pressure. Hence, it is best to have your doctor determine what is causing the problem. Very low levels of potassium, however, may lead to low blood pressure and fainting.
Tips to correct a potassium deficiency
- The best solution is to get this mineral from natural fruits. Some of the best sources are bananas, avocados, strawberries, oranges, mangoes, kiwis, apricots and dates.
- Vegetables high in beta-carotene also contain a good amount of potassium. Some examples are carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard and red peppers.
- Fish, such as sardines and salmon, also contain plenty of this mineral.
- Gradually include more potassium-rich foods in your diet each day until you are getting the recommended amount. It is best not to try to compensate for a potassium shortage all in one day.
- If you opt to take a supplement, always consult your doctor first.
- When your potassium level is low, avoid long, strenuous physical activities to prevent further loss of potassium through sweating.
- To fight this mineral deficiency, it is important to address the cause, such as improving your diet, treating diarrhea or consulting your doctor if a medication is at the root of the problem.
- Too much potassium is also not good for your health, especially for the kidneys. People suffering from diabetes or heart failure are more at risk of developing this problem.