Potassium Deficiency: Signs and Consequences


Children holding up potassium signs
Photo by Wavebreakmedia – yayimages.com

From cell signaling to muscle contractions and nerve functions, potassium plays an important role in the healthy functioning of the body.  But unfortunately, a majority of the US population is not consuming enough of this micronutrient in their daily diets. According to a national survey, 98 percent of US residents have potassium-short diet routines. One of the reasons why this large majority of the population is not getting their potassium is because of the diminution of plant-based foods in our lifestyles. You might not notice an immediate effect of potassium deficiency, but there are multiple health and everyday issues that are associated with the shortage of this mineral in the body.

Constant Feeling of Tiredness and Weakness

One of the initial signs of potassium deficiency is you start feeling tired and fatigued without any explicable reason (of course there are many other reasons for feeling fatigued. Check with your doctor to confirm the exact reason). Potassium along with calcium is responsible for regulating cell functions, which are deemed important for muscle contraction. With low potassium levels in the blood, muscles produce weaker contractions, which get highlighted by a constant feeling of exhaustion even when you haven’t been part of a rigorous physical activity.

Furthermore, deficiency of potassium can affect the physiological activity of other nutrients. Research has suggested that the production of insulin can be affected by a potassium deficiency which then spikes the levels of blood glucose. A sludgy blood circulation where cells can’t get enough necessary nutrition and oxygen also set off the feeling of exhaustion and weakness.

Frequent Muscle Cramps

A sudden, elongated contraction of muscles is known as a cramp or spasm. They are quite normal when the body is involved in an increased physical activity (sports, gym etc). However, people with acute potassium deficiency can experience these sudden muscle contractions more frequently.

Signaling of muscle cells that are involved in contractions are regulated by potassium channels. The nerve signals sent by the brain to end and start muscle contractions are actually relayed through potassium channels.

When there is an insufficient amount of potassium in the blood, it becomes difficult for the brain to effectively relay the signals regarding muscle contraction, which results in frequent cramps and spasms.

Cardiac Palpitations

Cardiac palpitations, which is one aspect of a condition called arrhythmia can be associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety where an individual feels that his/her heart is beating too fast or skipping beats. Besides the chest, this feeling of unrest can also be felt in the throat and neck as well.

Although there are numerous reasons a change in a heartbeat to occur,  a shortage of potassium cannot be ruled out. As mentioned earlier, potassium plays a crucial role in cell signaling within the body. So, when there is a potassium deficiency, the regulation of heart cells maintaining the rhythm of its beat can lead to these palpitations.

Stiffness of Muscles

Muscle stiffness and pain inculcated by rhabdomyolysis can also be prompted by the deficiency of potassium in the body. Rhabdomyolysis is a condition where the muscles break down and rupture due to a lack of oxygen. This usually happens when the blood vessels contract more than usual due to low levels of potassium in the bloodstream.

Digestive Complications

Contraction of the muscles of the stomach helps in the movement and propelling the food through the gut. This contraction is regulated by the cellular function of potassium which relays the brain signals to these muscles.

With inadequate amounts of potassium, this communication gets disrupted resulting in irregular muscle contraction which often leads to constipation, bloating and other digestive issues.

Breathing Issues

Potassium also plays a crucial role in the contraction of lung muscles. With not enough of this nutrient present for the communication of nerve signals with lung muscles, this breathing pattern gets affected and culminates with a shortness of breath.

Some studies also link potassium deficiency with psychological disorders and mood swings. one study indicated that among a group of people suffering from mental issues, 20 percent were suffering from potassium deficiency. However, these findings associating potassium deficiency with psychological diseases is not conclusive.  

Increasing Potassium Intake Through Your Daily Diet

According to the Food and Nutrition Board, 4700 milligrams of potassium should be consumed through a daily dietary routine to ensure an optimal amount of potassium in the body. Increasing the number of fruits, vegetables and nuts can help you with getting sufficient potassium. Here, we are listing some of the daily food options that are rich in potassium and also considered healthy due to their other nutritional content.

Cooked Foods

Beet greens, clams, pinto and white beans in cooked form are good sources of potassium and other healthy nutrients.

Baked Foods

Baked potatoes (white and sweet) and yams are also a good option to fulfill your potassium needs. In addition, avocados and bananas contain a big percentage of the recommended daily intake of potassium, as well as horseradish.  

What About Potassium Supplements?

Nutritional supplements have become a rage among a large number of people. In some cases, they might help but they are not a permanent solution to the problem. Therefore, physicians usually don’t recommend nutritional supplements; however, a doctor may subscribe a prescription for this mineral, which would be much more potent than something from over the counter. If the doctor does prescribe it, it is most likely the result of a blood count reading that indicates a low potassium level.

Similar is the case of potassium supplements. Some studies have shown that taking such supplements can result in adverse medical conditions. Supplements with a high content of potassium can damage the digestive tract and cause cardiovascular abnormalities. Only take such supplements if they are recommended by your physician.

In a literal sense, not a single cell can do its work in the absence of potassium. Maintaining a balanced diet is the best solution to evade all the discussed health issues that can be prompted with the deficiency of potassium in the body.