[Article updated on 19/09/2023]
Potassium is a primordial mineral, even vital to the proper functioning of the body. This is why it is important to preserve and treat any deficiency relating to this element, whether slight or severe. Discover the role of potassium, the causes, symptoms and possible treatments in cases of hypokalemia or potassium deficiency.
Before reading on
I’m not an expert in this field, but I am passionate about nutrition and health.
The articles you’ll find on my site are the result of in-depth research that I’d like to share with you. However, I would like to stress that I am not a health professional and that my advice should in no way replace that of a qualified physician. I’m here to guide you, but it’s important that you consult a professional for specific questions or medical concerns. Your well-being is important. So be sure to consult the appropriate experts and take the best possible care of yourself.
What is potassium and what are its effects on the body?
Potassium is an essential mineral that plays different vital functions for the human body. Like sodium and chlorine, it is an electrolyte and its chemical symbol is “K”. Its main functions are as follows:
- Potassium, combined with sodium, maintains the acid-base balance of the body and bodily fluids. Indeed, it regulates the pH inside the cells, while sodium is responsible for regulating that outside the cells;
- Potassium plays an essential role in the transmission of nerve impulses;
- Potassium also allows the contraction of muscles, including that of the heart muscles;
- This mineral contributes to the proper functioning of the kidneys and adrenal glands;
- It participates in various enzymatic reactions, protein synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism.
What are the causes of potassium deficiency?
Potassium deficiency, or hypokalemia, is caused by excessive loss of potassium through urine or through the digestive tract. This loss can come from excessive diarrhea or vomiting. It can also occur following serious and extensive burns. Hypokalemia may also appear following taking certain medications such as diuretic medications that stimulate urinary elimination, or laxatives.
Long-term use of aspirin, digitalis and corticosteroids can also cause potassium deficiency. Finally, prolonged fasting can lead to hypokalemia, as well as disorders such as anorexia. Generally speaking, potassium deficiency is observed in nearly 20% of hospitalized people. 5% of these people have severe hypokalemia. Likewise, between 10 and 40% of people who take diuretic medications are subject to a potassium deficiency.
What are the symptoms of potassium deficiency?
In the case of mild or moderate hypokalemia, the patient may experience the following symptoms:
- Fatigue ;
- Muscle cramps ;
- Intestinal laziness;
- Abdominal pain ;
- Frequent urination;
- Metabolic alkalosis.
If it is severe hypokalemia, the manifestations may be a little more pronounced, in particular:
- Muscular paralysis;
- A cardiac arrhythmia;
- Shortness of breath followed by chest pain;
- Pulse too slow or too fast;
In the case of untreated severe potassium deficiency, the risk of cardiac arrest is also higher, which can lead to death of the patient.
How to diagnose potassium deficiency?
To diagnose hypokalemia, three methods are generally used:
- A measurement of the potassium level in the blood: blood is taken to determine the potassium level;
- An electrocardiogram: an abnormally low potassium level generally leads to a cardiac arrhythmia. This disorder can be diagnosed through an electrocardiogram;
- A measurement of the amount of potassium in the urine: When the cause of hypokalemia is unclear, it is common for doctors to take a urine sample to determine the rate of urinary potassium excretion;
- An analysis of kidney functions is also necessary to detect the reasons for the lack of potassium. Likewise, the doctor carries out a questionnaire on diet, lifestyle and any treatments that the patient is following in order to find the probable causes of the potassium deficiency.
How to treat potassium deficiency?
The solution to treating a potassium deficiency generally involves giving the patient potassium supplementation, that is, they receive supplements containing a high concentration of potassium. Administration of the supplement can be done orally. Take in small quantities during meals, or in large quantities once a day. Supplements, such as potassium chloride, may come in capsule form.
It is also possible to administer it intravenously so that the supplement acts more quickly. However, this option is only recommended when hypokalemia is life-threatening, when it causes severe cardiac arrhythmia, or when oral administration is considered ineffective.
In the case of people taking medications that promote the elimination of potassium, they must regularly be monitored by a doctor so that the latter can measure the potassium level in their body. Taking a supplement is not obligatory, but may be necessary, if necessary. Medications that help retain potassium may also be prescribed, including amiloride, eplerenone, spironolactone, or triamterene.
However, these medications should only be taken if the kidneys are in excellent working order. Finally, when a magnesium deficiency appears at the same time as a potassium deficiency, both must be treated simultaneously.
How much is the potassium requirement?
Generally, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is enough to provide a person with the necessary daily amount of potassium. Here is a list of sufficient daily intakes depending on the age of each person:
- From 0 to 6 months: 400 mg/day;
- From 7 to 12 months: 700 mg/day;
- From 1 to 3 years: 3 g/day;
- From 3 to 8 years: 3.8 g/day;
- From 9 to 13 years old: 4.5 g/day;
- 14 years and over: 4.7 g/day.
A pregnant woman should observe a daily potassium intake of around 4.7, while that of a breastfeeding woman is higher, at 5.1 g/day.
What foods are rich in potassium?
The foods richest in potassium are fruits and vegetables. However, almost all foods contain it. A balanced diet which is generally sufficient to provide the necessary daily quantity.
Here are the main foods rich in potassium:
- Cooked white beans: 250 ml contains approximately 1,061 mg of potassium;
- Canned clams: 100 g contains approximately 628 mg of potassium;
- Boiled spinach: 125 ml contains almost 443 mg of potassium;
- Potato with its peel, cooked in the oven: 175 g contains approximately 950 mg of potassium;
- Potato without its peel, cooked in the oven: 155 g contains approximately 610 mg of potassium;
- Banana: 120 g contains, on average, 422 mg of potassium;
- Plain yogurt: 175 ml contains almost 430 mg;
- Cooked winter squash: 125 ml contains between 308 and 478 mg of potassium;
- Baked or grilled halibut fillet: 100 g contains nearly 576 mg of potassium;
- Pureed tomatoes in cans: 125 ml contains almost 580 mg of potassium.
As you will have understood, a potassium deficiency, moderate or severe, should not be taken lightly. This element directly influences the functioning of our vital organ: the heart. As soon as you experience any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, your first instinct is to call your doctor. Remember to eat healthily and in a balanced way. Generally, all the potassium your body needs is found in your everyday food. So, the best way to prevent hypokalemia is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and the foods mentioned, still in this article.