Causes and Treatments for Potassium Deficiency

Karen Frazier
Nutrition crossword puzzle

Potassium deficiency can lead to a number of physical problems. This essential nutrient helps control many important bodily functions and is a critical part of a healthy diet. It is necessary to avoid becoming deficient in order to experience optimal health.

Potassium

Potassium is a basic element that appears on the periodic table as the letter K. It is a member of the halogen family. Nutritionally, potassium performs essential functions in your body as a mineral. Your body only needs some minerals, such as manganese, copper, and iodine, in trace amounts. It requires other minerals, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium in larger amounts. The daily reference intake for potassium is 4.7 g per day for adults, and about 5.1 g per day for pregnant and lactating women. You may require more potassium if you sweat a great deal, or if you've experienced vomiting and diarrhea or similar loss of bodily fluids.

Potassium performs several important functions including:

  • Maintaining acid-base (pH) balance
  • Maintains normal cardiac activity via appropriate electrical function
  • Helps build and maintain muscle
  • Aids carbohydrate metabolism
  • Assists in protein synthesis

Electrolytes

Your body uses potassium and other minerals as electrolytes. The other major electrolytes include sodium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, bicarbonate, and sulfate. Electrolytes perform uniquely in the body, because they contain either positively or negatively charged ions. They help maintain nerve impulses that control bodily functions such as muscle contraction (including heartbeat), dilation, and constriction. Maintaining an appropriate balance of electrolytes in your body is essential, because if they become imbalanced, you may not exert proper control over these critical functions. In most cases, the kidneys effectively maintain electrolytic balance regardless of external changes; however, in some cases, electrolytes may become imbalanced.

Potassium Deficiency

Potassium is present in many of the foods, such as bananas, potatoes, meat, soy, as well as a variety fruits and vegetables. Electrolyte replenishing drinks also contain potassium. Because of this, severe, chronic, long-term potassium deficiency is relatively rare in people who maintain a balanced diet. Mild potassium deficiency, or acute onset potassium deficiency are more common.

Causes

Many factors may contribute to potassium deficiency including:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Malabsorption disorders
  • Kidney problems
  • Medications including diuretics, laxatives, corticosteroids, and other medications
  • A high sodium diet
  • Eating disorders
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Diabetes
  • Cushing's syndrome
  • Heart disease
  • Fasting
  • Anemia
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Unbalanced electrolyte consumption

Symptoms

Many of the symptoms of both chronic and acute potassium deficiency stem from its electrolytic function.

  • Leg cramps and other muscle cramps are one of the earliest signs of potassium deficiency
  • Muscle weakness
  • Paresthesia (pins and needles)
  • Paralysis
  • Excessive thirst and/or urination
  • Heart arrhythmia and/or palpitations
  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Drowsiness

Acute potassium deficiency caused by excessive fluid loss may present quite severely and may constitute a medical emergency. If you experience severe symptoms, seek emergency medical care.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the onset and severity of your symptoms.

  • Treat nighttime leg cramps, or other muscle cramps by increasing your consumption of calcium rich foods, or talk to your doctor about including a supplement in your health regimen.
  • Heart arrhythmia or palpitations accompanied by weakness, dizziness and confusion may occur when you've excreted too much potassium through sweating, urination, diarrhea, or vomiting. This is a medical emergency, so seek medical treatment. Emergency medical professionals typically administer intravenous Ringer's lactate solution to replenish your electrolytes quickly.
  • After you've sweated excessively, or if you've had gastroenteritis involving severe diarrhea and vomiting, replace potassium and other electrolytes with an electrolyte replacement solution such as Pedialyte
  • Treat other mild symptoms of potassium deficiency by eating a balanced diet that includes potassium-rich foods.

Because electrolyte balance is so important, talk with your doctor if you plan to supplement potassium to determine the appropriate dosage.

You can easily avoid potassium deficiency by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods. Eating in this manner is the best way to assure that you will get the nutrients you need to protect your health.

Causes and Treatments for Potassium Deficiency