Potassium Deficiency Is On the Rise - What You Should Know

The lack of fruits and vegetables is one of the major weaknesses of the flawed Western diet, as it can lead to widespread nutritional deficiencies. For example, did you know that 98% of Americans are not getting enough potassium from their diets according to a 2014 nationwide survey? This is pretty alarming because potassium is a mineral that we need to get from foods every day as the human body doesn’t produce it on its own.
In fact, the importance of potassium for our health and wellbeing is underestimated way too often. Not getting enough potassium from food can lead to several dangerous symptoms ranging from digestive issues to extreme fatigue, heart issues, and muscle cramps that can be misdiagnosed and mistreated. In this article, we explain why potassium is so important for our bodies, how to detect a potassium deficiency and its causes, and how healthy eating habits can help you maintain adequate potassium levels.

What role does potassium play in the body?

Potassium Deficiency potassium rich foods
Potassium is what is known as an electrolyte - a mineral that is dissolved in water and helps conduct electrical impulses in the body. It’s the third most abundant mineral in the body, and it works alongside other electrolytes, such as sodium and magnesium to accomplish a variety of functions, namely:
  • Helps regulate blood pressure
  • Conducts nerve impulses
  • Balances water and pH in the body
  • Is important for digestion
  • Plays a role in muscle contractions, including heart rhythm.
Getting enough potassium from our diet has a variety of positive outcomes for our health, and those who get enough of it have lower blood pressure, less water retention, a reduced incidence of stroke, osteoporosis, and kidney stones. Most health organizations recommend getting between 3.500 and 4.700 mg of potassium every day. Since fruit and vegetables are the richest sources of potassium, those of us who adhere to a Western diet high in processed foods and very low in fresh produce are not able to get enough of the mineral from our diet. This could ultimately lead to a potassium deficiency, known as hypokalemia.

Symptoms of potassium deficiency

The symptoms of potassium deficiency vary depending on the severity of the deficiency and range from mild to severe, which is exactly the order in which we list them below.

Potassium Deficiency sad woman
  •  Fatigue and muscle weakness
Fatigue and general weakness are usually the first noticeable signs of potassium deficiency. Because potassium is involved in muscle contractions, a lack of the mineral may cause muscle weakness. A scarcity of potassium in the brain may also lead to mood changes and mental health issues. There’s also some evidence to suggest that inadequate levels of potassium in the body may increase blood sugar levels, which can also contribute to the feeling of fatigue.
  • Digestive issues
We have muscles in our gut, too. These muscles stimulate contractions that help food travel through the digestive tract. Since potassium is involved in all muscle contractions, a lack thereof may lead to indigestion and constipation. In severe cases, the gut may even become paralyzed.
  • Muscle cramps 

Uncontrollable muscle movements and painful spasms in the muscles can also be a symptom of moderate potassium deficiency. Patients who experience this symptom don’t have enough potassium to control muscle movements. In severe cases, a person may experience muscle aches and stiffness, which are a very alarming sign, as it means that your muscle cells don’t get enough oxygen and start leaking and degrading.

Potassium Deficiency man with stomachache
  • Heart palpitations
If your heart starts racing or skips a beat without a reason, it may be a sign of a moderate to severe potassium deficiency. The same symptom is fine when you’re doing physical activities or feeling anxious, but when it occurs while you’re resting, it could point to arrhythmia, a heart condition that is linked to many serious heart conditions.
  • Shortness of breath
Severe potassium deficiencies can lead to breathing difficulties, as this mineral is the messenger from the brain that tells our lungs to expand and contract. When potassium levels are critically low, patients may experience difficulty breathing, in rare cases, to the point that the lungs stop working altogether.

The causes of a potassium deficiency

The good news is that a diet that is slightly low in potassium is rarely the cause of a severe deficiency and mostly accounts for milder cases of hypokalemia. There are certain medications and conditions, however, which together with a diet low in potassium can lead to a severe potassium deficiency. A sudden loss of fluids can lead to hypokalemia, for example, so excess sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting are often the cause of the condition.

Potassium Deficiency potassium rich foods list
Certain medications, such as diuretics that are commonly used to treat hypertension can likewise make you lose a lot of water (and potassium). Other conditions that disrupt the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, such as Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), as well as kidney disease and the use of some antibiotics are also known to lead to hypokalemia.
If you are in either of these high-risk groups and you’re experiencing any of the symptoms we mentioned above, consider asking for a test from your doctor to make sure your potassium levels are in check. While mild cases of potassium deficiency are best addressed with a potassium-rich diet, severe cases may require supplementation. Do not, however, take potassium supplements on your own, especially if you’re a senior or someone suffering from kidney problems, as they may damage your kidneys.
The safest way to maintain adequate levels of potassium is by including many potassium-rich foods in your diet every day. In the image above, we list the amount of potassium present in 100 grams of 10 common foods with relation to the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of the mineral. To get more information about foods that contain plenty of the mineral, read our article 10 Potassium-Rich Foods.
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