If you suspect you might have a potassium deficiency, this post is a great resource. We’re sharing everything you need to know, from common potassium deficiency causes, to signs and symptoms to watch for, to a list of 25 potassium-rich foods you can add to your diet to help give your body a boost!
What Is Potassium?
Potassium is an essential mineral that our body needs to function. It helps to regulate fluids, send nerve signals, keeps our blood pressure at a normal level, and regulates muscle contractions. Potassium carries a small electrical charge and is sometimes called an electrolyte.
It works alongside sodium to help maintain physiological balance. They work as a team to regulate the fluid balance in our cells. When levels of potassium go up, sodium levels go down, decreasing your blood pressure. And the opposite, when potassium levels go down, sodium levels go up, increasing your blood pressure. Sodium is an electrolyte as well, and finding the right balance between the two can help with hydration.
Most of us get the potassium we need from the foods we eat such as beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. However, those who consume mostly processed foods have lower levels of potassium. You can also take a potassium supplement if you’re not meeting the recommended daily allowance – 2,600 mg for women and 3,400 mg for men.
What Causes a Potassium Deficiency?
Low potassium, or hypokalemia, occurs when the level of potassium in our blood is below 3.5 mmol per liter. Women are more likely than men to have low potassium.
A potassium deficiency is usually not related to a poor diet alone. There are typically other factors involved that decrease potassium levels including:
- Fluid loss
- Too much alcohol
- Certain medications such as diuretics
- Eating disorders
- Chronic diarrhea
- Low levels of magnesium
- Excessive sweating
- Kidney failure or other medical conditions
- Consuming too much licorice
7 Symptoms of a Potassium Deficiency
Even slight changes in the level of potassium can affect our bodies. If your body is deficient in potassium, you may experience one or more symptoms such as:
- High blood pressure – Potassium helps to regulate the levels of sodium in your body by eliminating any excess through your urine. Without enough potassium, the level of sodium in your blood is higher, and you can develop high blood pressure over time.
- Numbness and tingling – Without enough potassium, you may experience some tingling and numbness in your legs, feet, hands, or arms. Because potassium helps support healthy nerve function, not getting enough can weaken nerve signals, causing numbness and tingling.
- Abnormal heartbeat – Potassium is key for a healthy heart, specifically heart muscle contractions. Low potassium can disrupt your heart’s normal rhythm, causing a heart arrhythmia. This is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.
- Digestive problems – Potassium helps food move through your digestive system by allowing your brain to send signals to your digestive muscles telling them what to do. Those signals contract the muscles and push the food through at the right pace. Too little potassium can lead to problems with your digestive system such as constipation and bloating.
- Breathing difficulties – Potassium is essential for muscle contractions, including your diaphragm, which allows your lungs to inhale and exhale. Without enough potassium, your lungs cannot work properly, leading to shortness of breath.
- Weakness and fatigue – Fatigue and weakness are usually some of the first symptoms of a potassium deficiency. Low potassium means that your muscles cannot function normally, leading to muscle weakness. It can also affect other nutrients in your body, such as insulin, making you feel fatigued.
- Muscle weakness and cramping – Potassium directly affects our muscles and helps them contract. Not having enough potassium can cause muscle weakness. It can also lead to uncontrollable contractions which causes muscle cramps.
4 Dangers of Low Potassium
If your levels of potassium are too low, you may experience dangerous conditions such as:
- An abnormal heart rhythm
- Sudden cardiac arrest or a heart attack
- For infants – dystonia (muscle floppiness) and difficulty breathing
How Is a Potassium Deficiency Treated?
When it comes to treating potassium deficiency, it’s best done by a medical professional.
Adding more potassium to your diet is usually not enough to raise your levels. Your doctor may prescribe oral potassium supplements or adjust other medications you’re currently taking to help you get more potassium.
Another way to treat any deficiency is by addressing underlying causes such as eating disorders, vomiting, or diarrhea. In extreme cases, your doctor may recommend IV therapy.
25 Potassium-Rich Foods
If you’re experiencing low potassium levels, you should always consult your doctor first. However, adjusting your diet to include more potassium-rich foods will lead to better overall health. Check out this list of 25 potassium-rich foods:
- Beans and legumes – pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, lentils, soybeans
- Melon – cantaloupe and honeydew
- Dried fruits – prunes, dates, raisins
- Low-fat dairy – milk and yogurt
- Certain types of fish – trout, cod, tuna, halibut, rockfish
- Certain fruit juices – tomato, apricot, prune, orange, grapefruit
- Meat and poultry
- Brown and wild rice
- Whole-wheat pasta or bread
- Bran cereal
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
- Cooked spinach
- Cooked broccoli
By adding 2 to 3 of these foods to your diet each day, you’re well on your way to getting the potassium your body needs. If you’re concerned that you may have a potassium deficiency, be sure to reach out to your doctor to avoid any serious health consequences.
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