Sodium, magnesium, chloride and potassium are the major constituents of electrolytes in our body which are responsible for transmitting nerve signals, regulating water and muscle contractions.  Potassium imbalance may have deadly consequences, it may lead to brain dysfunction, muscle cramps and twitching. However, it can be prevented with various measure such as including potassium rich food items in diet and medical supplements.  

Functions of Potassium

Potassium is positively charged ion and maintains the acid-base balance in the body. The major functions of potassium are transmitting never signals. Potassium ions acts as neurotransmitters and responsible for carrying information from one part of the body to another.  

In addition to the neuro transmission it also maintains the balance between water and electrolytes. Potassium deficiency affects the water retention capacity of the body. It also maintains healthy muscle tissues and prevent from muscle cramps and spasm.  

What is Potassium Deficiency?

Hypokalemia is primarily caused by the prolonged deprivation of potassium rich diet. However, it can also be caused by excessing vomiting and diarrhoea, sweating, urination for very long time.  In addition to this potassium deficiency can also be caused by malabsorption in body due to pre-existing health conditions like GI disorders, bariatric surgery, renal dysfunction and medications which may affect the concentration of potassium in body such as diuretics.  

Causes of Potassium Deficiency

The condition of hypokalemia is developed due to various reasons. Some of the major factors have been illustrated below:

  • Potassium Deficient Diet: The widely accepted cause of potassium deficiency in humans are potassium deficient food items in our daily diet and our food habits in which we mainly rely on fast foods.  
  • Chronic Disorders: Chronic disorders like prolonged vomiting, diarrhoea and urination expels the good amount of potassium ion from our body and result in the condition of hypokalemia. Chronic gastrointestinal disorders affect the ability of potassium absorption which may lead to its deficiency.
  • Alcoholism: Excessive alcohol consumption is also considered as the major contributing factors of potassium deficiency. Prolonged alcohol consumption affects the urination cycle as well as absorption through gastrointestinal tracts. 
  • Renal Failure: Kidney functions as filter for the blood. It expels the unwanted materials from the blood and maintain the healthy balance between its constituents. Renal disorders paralyses the capabilities of kidneys and results in expulsion of important minerals like potassium otherwise which have been preserved in the blood. 

Symptoms of Potassium Deficiency 

The common symptoms of potassium deficiency include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramp and spasm
  • Muscle twitching
  • Numbness
  • Tingling,
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Excessive urination 
  • Heavy sweating

Health Risks due to Hypokalemia

  • Neural Dysfunction: Potassium acts as neurotransmitters in transferring signals from one part of the body to other. Lack of potassium in the blood stream leads to inefficient transmission of signal which affects the coordination between brain and different organs. It impairs the psychomotor abilities of different limbs.
  • Cardiovascular Disease: The prolonged condition of low potassium in human body leads to irregular heart rhythm (palpitations). Doctors generally do echocardiography to understand the abnormal behaviour of heart. 
  • Water Retention: Lack of potassium in body results in acid base imbalance which affects the water retention capacity of the individual cells and body. People with severe potassium deficiency might develop symptoms of body swelling. 

Some other health risk associated with potassium deficiencies are Cushing’s, Fanconi, Liddle, barter and Gitelman syndromes.

Tests for Potassium Deficiency

Potassium is present in the blood, cells and tissues in variable concentrations. The common tests recommended for potassium deficiency are blood or and urine tests. Its often tested in electrolyte or metabolic panel.

  • Blood Test: Potassium is tested as part of electrolyte or metabolic panel. Ideally, we don’t require any precautions for this test however we need to stop medication which may interfere with the concentration of electrolytes. 
  • Urine Test: The second most used method to identify the concentration of potassium in our body is urine test. Its also been tested along with other electrolytes.   

If you have health conditions which may cause potassium deficiency, doctors me advise for these tests for the confirmation of potassium deficiency.

Remedies for Potassium Deficiency 

  • Potassium Supplements: Severe deficiency needs immediate medical attention. Doctors may prescribe medical supplements however it should be consumed in the control manner as high doses of potassium may have impact on GI tracts and acid-base balance.    
  • Potassium Rich Diet: The easiest way to prevent potassium deficiency is potassium rich diet. Some of the potassium rich food items lentils, banana, oranges, grapefruit, apricots, prunes, raisins, dates, mushroom, spinach, broccoli.
  • Fortified Food Items: Several food items have very low concentration of potassium in this circumstance we need to adopt fortification process of food items to enrich our daily requirements of potassium through diet. Fortification at initial stage of agriculture may be the most plausible solution to this.
  • Avoid Drinking: For the proper functioning of human body we must minimise the alcohol intake or if possible, should quit drinking. It will help in adequate absorption and prevent from excessive expulsion of electrolyte from our body.  

Prevention of Potassium Deficiency

It is often said that “Prevention is better than Cure” and indeed this is very much true with reference to mineral deficiencies. Hypochloremia can be prevented through consumption of potassium rich diet.

Food items rich in potassium:

  • Lentils
  • Banana
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Apricots
  • Prunes
  • Raisins
  • Dates
  • Mushroom
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Fortified food items

Adequate Intake (>19 yrs.):

The ideal way to prevent potassium deficiencies is to main balanced and healthy diet. The daily intakes of potassium vary with age however, the recommended daily intake of potassium for an adult is 4700 mg.

Potassium is very important electrolyte essential for the proper function of vital organs like brain and heart.  In severe cases it may lead to encephalopathy which may be irreversible in few cases.   It also helps in maintain the acid-base balance in our body. 

Although potassium deficiency has several ill effects, it can be treated with the appropriate consultation and supplements as prescribed by medical experts. The best possible way to avoid these life-threatening circumstances by consuming adequate amount of potassium as per RDA through various potassium rich diet.