What is Potassium?
Potassium is a mineral found
in foods. It is also an electrolyte,
which conducts electrical impulses throughout the body. Potassium assists in a
range of essential body functions, including:
- blood pressure
- normal water balance
- nerve impulses
- heart rhythm
- pH balance (acidity
Potassium isn’t produced naturally
by the body, so it’s important to consume the right balance of potassium-rich
foods and beverages. Consuming too little potassium can lead to serious health
consequences, while taking in too much can cause both temporary and long-term
health problems. Healthy kidneys maintain normal potassium levels because they
remove excess amounts through urine.
Sources of Potassium
Potassium is most commonly
derived from foods. Potassium-rich sources include:
- fruits (apricots,
bananas, kiwi, oranges, and pineapples)
- vegetables (leafy
greens, carrots, and potatoes)
- lean meats
- whole grains
- beans and nuts
Most people get enough
potassium just by eating a balanced diet. For low potassium levels, a doctor
may prescribe the mineral in supplemental form. Severe deficiency may warrant
Certain conditions can cause
potassium deficiencies, or hypokalemia.
- kidney disease
- overuse of
- excess sweating,
diarrhea, and vomiting
- use of
antibiotics, such as carbenicillin and penicillin
Symptoms of hypokalemia
depend on the severity of your deficiency. A temporary decrease in potassium
may not cause any symptoms. For example, if you sweat a lot from a hard
workout, your potassium levels may normalize after eating a meal or drinking
electrolytes before any damage is done. Severe deficiency, however, can be
life-threatening. Signs of potassium deficiency are:
- extreme fatigue
- muscle spasms
Hypokalemia is usually diagnosed
with a blood test. Your doctor may also order an electrocardiogram of the
heart, as well as an arterial blood gas test to measure pH levels in the body.
When not monitored
carefully, too much potassium can cause hyperkalemia.
This is rare for people who eat balanced diets. Risk factors for overdose
- taking too many
- kidney disease
- cocaine overdose
- severe burns
The most obvious symptom of a
potassium overdose is an abnormal heartbeat. Severe cases can lead to death.
Mild cases don’t exhibit symptoms, so your doctor should order occasional blood
work if you have any risk factors.
In cases of potassium
deficiency, the first course of action for treatment is usually supplements.
This is mostly effective if your kidneys are in good shape. Severe hypokalemia
may require intravenous treatment, especially if you’re experiencing an
Potassium-sparing diuretics can
rid the body of excess sodium, which helps normalize electrolyte levels. However,
some diuretics and potassium supplements can be harsh on the digestive tract.
Ask a doctor for wax-coated pills to help prevent digestive ailments.
Potassium-sparing diuretics can only be used in patients with normal kidney
When there is too much
potassium in the blood, mild cases can be treated with prescription medications
that decrease potassium excretion. Other methods include diuretics or an enema.
Severe cases may require
more complex treatments. Kidney dialysis can remove potassium. This is the
preferred treatment for cases of kidney failure. For patients with healthy
kidneys, a doctor might recommend doses of insulin and glucose. These help to
transport potassium from the blood to cells for removal. An albuterol inhaler can
also lower dangerously high levels.
Changes in body potassium
may not be a concern if you don’t have risk factors. Healthy kidneys are often enough
to regulate body potassium. Medical conditions that affect levels should be
monitored regularly. Call your physician if you experience any unusual