Most people know what nutrients our bodies need and that a healthy, balanced diet will supply them in sufficient amounts.
However, many often don't know why each nutrient is essential and which bodily function it supports; for example, potassium.
Table of Contents
- What Is Potassium?
- Why Is Potassium Important?
- What Foods Are Rich in Potassium?
- What Happens if Your Potassium Levels are Too Low?
- What Happens if Your Potassium Levels Are Too High?
- How Can I Raise or Lower My Potassium Levels Quickly?
- Do Potassium Supplements Interact with Other Drugs?
- Can You Check Your Potassium Level at Home?
- How Can You Keep Your Potassium at a Healthy Level?
What Is Potassium?
Potassium is a mineral electrolyte, and electrolytes enable electrical impulses to travel and are essential for your nervous system. Getting enough from your diet is crucial, as our bodies don't produce it, and excess is removed by the kidneys.
Why Is Potassium Important?
Potassium helps maintain a steady heartbeat and enables nutrients to flow into and waste products out of cells. It's highly reactive in water, producing positively charged ions when dissolved.
It's essential for maintaining blood pressure, digestion, metabolism, and bodily pH levels. It also increases urine production and lowers sodium levels, reducing your risk of kidney stones; it may even help prevent strokes.
Potassium and other electrolytes maintain the fluid balance in your body, preventing unhealthy dehydration or water retention.
Nearly 98% of the potassium in your body is in your cells, 80% of this in muscle cells, and 20% in bones, liver, and red blood cells.
What Foods Are Rich in Potassium?
Potassium is found in many foods, including:
- Beet greens
- Pinto beans
- Portobello mushrooms
- Lean meats
Additionally, potassium supplements are available either over the counter or on prescription for higher doses, which should only be taken under your doctor's supervision.
What Happens if Your Potassium Levels are Too Low?
The recommended daily potassium intake is around 3,400 mg for healthy males and 2,600 mg for healthy females. These can vary with age, health, and whether you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
Potassium deficiency often occurs due to vomiting, chronic diarrhea, excessive sweating, magnesium deficiency, and when your body loses a lot of water.
Other causes include:
- drinking too much alcohol
- taking certain antibiotics
- some asthma medications
Symptoms of potassium deficiency vary according to its severity. Temporary potassium deficiency, for example, after an illness, may not come with any symptoms.
However, severe, prolonged potassium deficiency can be life-threatening, and symptoms include:
- extreme fatigue
- muscles spasms, weakness, and cramping
- irregular heartbeat
- stomach irritation, such as constipation, nausea, or vomiting
- confusion, in people with kidney disease
- breathing problems
- muscular paralysis
However, these can be symptomatic of other conditions, so consult your doctor.
Unaddressed potassium deficiency can lead to severe health conditions, including:
- high blood pressure
- increased risk of kidney stones
- low calcium levels in the bones
What Happens if Your Potassium Levels Are Too High?
Overly high potassium levels are rare and usually caused by too much supplementation, especially in those with poor kidney function.
Too much potassium is also more likely in people who suffer:
- Addison's disease
- Congestive heart failure
- Human immunodeficiency virus
- Kidney disease
Other factors that can lead to potassium levels that are too high are cocaine use, taking too many diuretics, chemotherapy, or severe burns.
One of the most common symptoms is an abnormal heartbeat. You should contact your doctor immediately if you have difficulty breathing, extreme muscle weakness, fatigue, severe abdominal pain, weak pulse, or chest pain.
How Can I Raise or Lower My Potassium Levels Quickly?
Below are some ways to maintain an optimum potassium level.
Hypokalemia (low potassium levels)
If your kidneys are healthy, potassium supplements should be your first course of action. However, these take some time to work.
In severe cases, intravenous supplementation may be required, especially if you have an irregular heartbeat.
If you've already tried increasing your dietary intake of potassium and feel it hasn't made a difference, consult your doctor.
Hyperkalemia (high potassium levels)
Your doctor may address mild cases by prescribing medication, such as diuretics. More severe cases may require kidney dialysis.
Do Potassium Supplements Interact with Other Drugs?
If you're taking any medication (especially prescription), you should refrain from increasing your potassium intake without talking to your doctor.
Some drugs called angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, for example, can inhibit potassium removal, leading to hyperkalemia.
If you're taking medication to improve kidney function or for type 2 diabetes, supplementing potassium can be dangerous.
Can You Check Your Potassium Level at Home?
Unfortunately, it's not possible to check your potassium levels at home; however, home testing kits are in development.
How Can You Keep Your Potassium at a Healthy Level?
Generally, people who eat healthily shouldn't need to take any action to maintain a healthy potassium level.
If you feel your levels are too low or too high, adjust your diet accordingly, or, if your symptoms are severe, consult your doctor.