Potassium is important for your muscles, nerves and cardiovascular system. A majority of the potassium in your body (about 98 percent of it) can be found in your cells, where it allows your nerves and muscles communicate, transports nutrients, helps your kidneys function and regulates levels of sodium.
Luckily, the nutrient can be found in lots of delicious foods (melon, avocados, bananas and white beans), but even if you get the recommended 4,700 mg per day, you still might have a potassium deficiency, or what’s known by doctors as “hypokalemia.” How is that possible you might ask? That’s because the more sodium you consume, the more potassium your body excretes. Deficiency is much more common in people who lose potassium through sweating or through their secretions, such as those who abuse laxatives and diuretics or have a GI disorder, diabetes or diarrhea.
Signs of a potassium deficiency can be difficult to discern because they’re common symptoms of other diseases as well, but that doesn’t mean the shortage isn’t extremely important. “Potassium deficiency is actually deadly,” says Ginger Hultin, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People who have an outright deficiency could quickly face dangerous cardiovascular troubles.”
To be extra cautious, if you’re experiencing these signs and cannot determine their root cause, visit a medical professional to have your potassium levels tested.
Weakness and fatigue
If you’ve been getting enough sleep and still feel exhausted and sluggish throughout the day, you might want to reassess if you’re consuming enough potassium. Weakness and fatigue are often the first signs of potassium deficiency. Potassium helps regulate strong muscle contractions and how the body uses nutrients, so without the mineral, you might feel weak.
Muscle cramps and spasms
Muscle cramps are sudden contractions of the muscles that can occur when potassium levels are low. Because potassium helps start and stop muscle contractions, inadequate levels of the mineral can cause uncontrolled and prolonged contractions known colloquially as cramps.
Potassium helps relay signals from the brain to muscles located in the digestive system. Because of this, potassium deficiencies can cause constipation, bloating and abdominal cramping.
Low levels of potassium may cause the unpleasant sensation of heart palpitations. The symptom may also be an indication of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which is also linked to potassium deficiencies and can be a sign of a more serious heart condition.
Muscle aches and stiffness
When levels of potassium are severely low, blood vessels can contract and restrict blood flow (and therefore oxygen) to your muscles, causing rupture in the cells. The result is a condition called rhabdomyolysis, a rapid breakdown of muscle, which is accompanied by symptoms like muscle stiffness and aches.
Tingling and numbness
Potassium helps keep your nerves healthy, and without it, you may experience the sensation known as “pins and needles.” This feeling is often perceived in the hands, arms, legs, and feet.
Potassium helps the lungs expand and contract, so a deficiency of the mineral may result in shortness of breath. Even worse, a severe deficiency may stop the lungs from working altogether, which would be deadly.
High blood pressure
Without enough potassium, which helps to relax blood vessels, they can become constricted, and cause blood pressure to soar.
Faintness and dizziness
A large drop in potassium levels can slow your heartbeat enough to make you feel like you’re going to faint.
The best way to get 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 10 adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Although bananas might be best known, there are plenty of foods that have high levels of potassium, like leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, avocado, pumpkins, potatoes, carrots, raisins, carrots, beans, dairy products like milk and yogurt, meat, poultry, fish and nuts. In some cases, supplements might be prescribed when a change in diet is not enough.