Potassium is an essential mineral that is involved in many functions in the body. Helps regulate muscle contractions, maintain healthy nerve function, and regulate fluid balance.
However, a national survey found that approximately 98 percent of people in the United States do not meet the recommended potassium intake. The Western diet is likely to be to blame, as it favors processed foods over plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts.
Now, a diet low in potassium is rarely the cause of potassium deficiency or hypokalemia.
Deficiency is characterized by a blood potassium level below 3.5 mmol per liter.
Instead, it occurs when the body suddenly loses a lot of fluid. Common causes include chronic vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, and blood loss.
Here are 8 signs and symptoms of potassium deficiency.
1. Weakness or fatigue
The first signs of potassium deficiency are usually weakness and fatigue.
There are several ways that this mineral deficiency can cause weakness and fatigue.
First, potassium helps regulate muscle contractions. When blood potassium levels are low, muscles produce weaker contractions.
A deficiency in this mineral can also affect the way the body uses nutrients, leading to fatigue.
For example, some evidence shows that deficiency could affect insulin production, which leads to high blood sugar levels.
2. Muscle cramps and spasms
Muscle cramps are sudden, uncontrolled contractions of the muscles.
They can occur when potassium levels in the blood are low.
Potassium within muscle cells helps transmit signals from the brain that stimulate contractions. It also helps to stop these contractions by exiting the muscle cells.
When potassium levels in the blood are low, the brain cannot transmit these signals as effectively. The result is longer contractions, like muscle cramps.
3. Digestive problems
Digestive problems have many causes, one of which may be potassium deficiency.
Potassium helps transmit signals from the brain to the muscles located in the digestive system. These signals stimulate contractions that help the digestive system stir and propel food so it can be digested.
When potassium levels in the blood are low, the brain cannot transmit signals as effectively.
In this way, the contractions in the digestive system can be weakened and slow down the movement of food. This could cause digestive problems like bloating and constipation.
Additionally, some studies have suggested that a severe deficiency can cause the intestine to become completely paralyzed.
However, other studies have found that the link between potassium deficiency and a paralyzed intestine is not entirely clear.
4. Heart palpitations
Have you ever noticed that your heart suddenly beats harder, faster, or skips a beat?
This sensation is known as heart palpitation and is commonly related to stress or anxiety. However, heart palpitations can also be a sign of potassium deficiency.
This is because the flow of potassium in and out of heart cells helps regulate the heartbeat. Low levels of potassium in the blood can disrupt this flow, resulting in heart palpitations.
Also, heart palpitations can be a sign of arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythm, which are also related to potassium deficiency. Unlike palpitations, arrhythmia has been linked to serious heart conditions.
5. Muscle aches and stiffness
Muscle aches and stiffness can also be a sign of a severe potassium deficiency.
These symptoms could indicate rapid muscle breakdown, also known as rhabdomyolysis.
Potassium levels in the blood help regulate blood flow to the muscles. When levels are too low, blood vessels can constrict, restricting blood flow to muscles.
This means that the muscle cells receive less oxygen, which can cause them to break down and leak. This causes rhabdomyolysis, along with symptoms such as muscle stiffness and soreness.
6. Tingling and numbness
People with potassium deficiency may experience persistent tingling and numbness.
This is known as paresthesia and usually occurs in the hands, arms, legs, and feet.
Potassium is important for proper nervous system function. Low levels of potassium in the blood can weaken nerve signals, which can lead to tingling and numbness.
While experiencing these symptoms occasionally is harmless, persistent tingling and numbness may be a sign of an underlying condition. If you experience persistent paresthesia, it is best to see your doctor.
7. Breathing difficulties
A severe potassium deficiency can cause breathing difficulties. This is because potassium helps transmit signals that stimulate the contraction and expansion of the lungs.
If blood potassium levels are too low, your lungs may not expand and contract properly. This makes you short of breath.
Also, low potassium in the blood can make it difficult to breathe, as it can cause the heart to beat abnormally. This means that less blood is pumped from the heart to the rest of the body.
Blood carries oxygen to the body, so impaired blood flow can cause shortness of breath.
Also, severe potassium deficiency can stop lung function, which is life-threatening.
8. Mood swings
Potassium deficiency has also been linked to mood swings and mental fatigue.
Low levels of potassium in the blood can disrupt signals that help maintain optimal brain function.
For example, one study found that 20 percent of patients with mental disorders had a potassium deficiency.
That being said, the evidence in the area of potassium deficiency and mood is limited. More research is needed before making any recommendations.