Potassium deficiency is when a person has abnormally low levels of potassium in their body. It is also called Hypokalaemia. It is found inside cells and is essential for good health. Severe potassium deficiency is called hypokalemia, and it occurs when a person’s potassium levels fall below 3.6 millimoles per liter (mmol/L).
What is Potassium?
Potassium is a mineral found in the foods you eat. It’s also an electrolyte. Electrolytes conduct electrical impulses throughout the body. They assist in a range of essential body functions, including –
• blood pressure
• normal water balance
• muscle contractions
• nerve impulses
• heart rhythm
• pH balance (acidity and alkalinity)
Your body doesn’t produce potassium naturally. So, it’s important to consume the right balance of potassium-rich foods and beverages.
If you have low levels of potassium, symptoms may include:
• feeling tired
• muscle cramps
• an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) – skipped heartbeats or an irregular heartbeat
• tingling or numbness
• increased urination
Although we source most of our potassium from our diet, a low-potassium diet is hardly ever the reason for a deficiency. More often than not, potassium deficiency occurs due to loss from the Gastrointestinal tract (GI) or the kidney.
Potassium deficiency caused due to loss from GI tract may be because of –
• Excessive vomiting
• After Ileostomy (a surgical opening in the abdominal wall during bowel surgery)
Potassium deficiency caused due to loss from the kidneys may be because of:
• Diuretic medicines
• Elevated corticosteroid levels
• High levels of aldosterone – a hormone that can increase if a person has renal artery stenosis or adrenal tumour
• Renal tubular acidosis
• Low body Magnesium levels
Someone with severe hypokalemia can experience –
• decreased brain function
• high blood sugar levels
• muscle paralysis
• difficulty breathing
• irregular heartbeat
Severe hypokalemia can be life threatening.
Other than physical symptoms Recommended tests for potassium deficiency includes –
• further blood tests to check the levels of other electrolytes, such as glucose, phosphorous, calcium, and magnesium
• urine testing to determine how much potassium is passing out of the body
• thyroid hormone
• An electrocardiogram (ECG) to check the heart may also be done.
The treatment method for potassium deficiency will depend on the severity and your medical history.
For mild hypokalemia, your doctor may recommend-
• Stopping any medications that can result in low levels of potassium
• Taking potassium supplements
• Adding more foods containing potassium naturally
• Taking medicines specific to increasing potassium levels in the body
The recommended daily intake of potassium is 3400mg for adult males and 2600mg for adult females.
The most common source of potassium is from food. Potassium-rich sources include:
• fruits, such as apricots, bananas, kiwi, oranges, and pineapples
• vegetables, such as leafy greens spinach, broccoli, carrots, and potatoes
• lean meats
• whole grains like brown rice
• beans and nuts
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