The third most abundant mineral in the human body, potassium is one of seven essential macrominerals humans need to support multiple body processes. Nearly all potassium in the human body is found in cells, with 80% in muscle cells and 20% in bones, liver, and red blood cells. The amount of potassium required per day varies by age and gender. The National Institutes of Health states that males 19 and older should consume 3,400 mg. daily, while females 19 and older need 2,600 mg. Pregnant and breastfeeding women require slightly more (2,900 mg. and 2,800 mg., respectively).
Potassium is found in a wide array of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Foods with the highest amounts include leafy greens, tomatoes, potato with the skin, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, cantaloupe, bananas, low-fat milk, and cooked quinoa. Once potassium is absorbed, it acts as an electrolyte in the body. When electrolytes are subjected to water, they dissolve into negative or positive ions that can conduct electricity. Potassium ions carry a positive charge that the body uses for various processes. Key functions of potassium include:
- Regulating fluid balance
- Maintaining healthy nerve function
- Regulating heart and muscle contractions
Causes of Low Potassium
A diet low in potassium is rarely the cause of a deficiency (called hypokalemia). Rather, this occurs when the body loses excessive fluids from chronic vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, and blood loss. The body can also lose potassium any time there is a large flow of urine (e.g. when carbohydrate intake is restricted or a person drinks a lot of fluids).
What Are The Symptoms of Low Potassium?
Weakness and fatigue are often the first signs of potassium deficiency. Potassium helps regulate muscle contractions, so when levels are low, the muscles produce weaker contractions. Fatigue is likely caused by the body’s diminished ability to use nutrients. Low potassium side effects include:
- Muscle cramps and spasms
- Muscle aches and stiffness
- Tingling or numbness
- Digestive issues (e.g. nausea, vomiting, cramping, bloating, or constipation)
- Heart palpitations
- Passing large amounts of urine or excessive thirst
- Fainting due to low blood pressure
- Abnormal psychological behavior (e.g. depression, psychosis, delirium, confusion, or hallucinations)
Benefits of Potassium
The benefits of potassium have been the subject of many research studies. One of the potential benefits of a potassium-rich diet is reduced blood pressure. This is attributed to potassium’s ability to remove excess sodium from the body. Several studies have shown that a potassium-rich diet may reduce the risk of stroke. Research has also demonstrated that a potassium-rich diet may help prevent osteoporosis by reducing the amount of calcium the body loses through urine. Two large-scale, long-term studies found a reduced risk of kidney stones in those who consumed the most potassium (51% lower risk in males, 35% lower risk in females).
When Are Potassium Supplements Necessary?
Sweating during exercise or hot temperatures leads to the loss of electrolytes. Research shows it is beneficial for athletes to replace potassium lost during the course of exercise to prevent a decline in performance. This decline is caused when depleted potassium in sweat or urine is replaced with potassium secreted from muscle cells, thereby negatively impacting muscle strength. It’s especially important to replace potassium if you engage in exercise for 3 hours or longer at a stretch (e.g. marathon, long bike ride, etc.)
Potassium supplements can be helpful during ketosis (ketogenic diet programs) and/or when you increase your daily water consumption. Lindora clinic patients often take a potassium gluconate supplement to maintain normal potassium and electrolyte levels during the Weight Loss phase of the Lindora program.
*Be sure to ask your clinician or doctor about the appropriate amount of potassium for your unique needs. If you are being treated for chronic disease, high blood pressure, or are taking potassium-sparing diuretics, you should not take extra potassium supplements without first consulting your physician