It is estimated that over 90% of Americans currently do not meet their required daily intake of potassium but what makes this mineral important anyway? Known as hypokalemia, potassium is very important to our health and arguably, survival.
Often the under-appreciated mineral, potassium’s role in the body is irreplaceable. Ranging from ensuring normal muscle contractility, blood vessel health, nervous system activity, and function, to modulating electrolyte and fluid balance, most people don’t realize that they are deficient in potassium until a hospitalization stint brings this to their attention.
And yet, even though a significant amount of the population is deficient in this mineral, symptoms are masked or absent altogether, until a scenario arises which causes acute disruption of fluid and electrolyte balance. You can think of this as conditions such as diarrhea, vomiting, or following the use of prescription medication as advised by your physician.
Wondering what some of the symptoms that can indicate a state of hypokalemia are? Let’s check them out.
If you swear that you are meeting your water requirements every day, getting in a decent amount of fiber, and have no pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of constipation, a potassium deficiency might be the culprit.
Potassium shares a somewhat love-hate relationship with sodium. While sodium tends to favor water storage or water resorption from the stool, potassium helps ensure that a balance is struck between water storage and excretion. Constipation often occurs when the stool becomes too compact, usually from water resorption while in the colon.
A deficiency of potassium, of course, lends itself to the domination of sodium’s actions, making it a difficult task to have regular bowel movements.
2. Muscle Weakness
Potassium is very important for ensuring that muscle contractions occur in order to facilitate the normal everyday activity. However, low potassium blood levels impair normal muscle contractility, resulting in weak contractions.
While many people do not understand what muscle weakness entails, think of attempting to lift an object of average weight, and suddenly having your muscles give out as you do so. This is because of inefficient muscle contraction.
3. Digestive Issues
Within the stomach lies a very important nerve – the vagus nerve. This is the largest nerve in the human body and plays a key role in the transmission of signals to the brain as it runs the entire length of the spinal column.
Nervous stomach? This is the vagus nerve in action. However, potassium deficiency effectively impairs the function of this nerve. For one, the vagus nerve is able to relate to the brain when you had enough to eat so that you stop. Potassium deficiency may impair this reflex, causing you to over or under eat.
In addition to this, normal peristaltic movement and gastric emptying may also become impaired since it also relies on nerve transmission to be done. The likelihood of nausea, bloating, acid reflux and indigestion are all common accompaniments when potassium levels are low.
4. Abnormal Heart Rhythm
If blood potassium levels are low, theoretically your heartbeat responds by becoming slower. However, due to compensatory mechanisms, it actually becomes faster, leading to palpitations as blood vessels are also affected by potassium deficiency.
Blood volume is temporarily increased under the influence of low potassium, as sodium draws water into the blood. In addition, blood vessels may constrict under the influence of sodium, leading to a scenario of more blood and smaller blood vessels.
Compare this to a water pump (your heart) attempting to transport more fluid with a smaller hose, and what you have is increased force on the heart to supply organs that oxygen and nutrients. How does it do this? By contracting faster.
Numbness is likely to be felt especially in the legs, as a result of potassium deficiency on the nerves. While it can also affect any part of the body, toes are more common since blood flow to this part of the body is first likely to be affected, and in turn, receive less potassium.
Transient numbness or tingling is manageable, but can also evolve into the long-term loss of sensation which can be dangerous to your health and safety.
6. Psychological Effects
Potassium also plays a key role in the regulation of mood and brain function. It helps with nerve transmission within the brain, and with the production of several neurotransmitters.
One study found that approximately one in five patients diagnosed with a mental disorder had a potassium deficiency as well, pointing to a possible link.
Constant drowsiness and inability to focus for a period of time are all attributed to a possible potassium deficiency.
7. High Blood Pressure
While hypertension has many triggers behind it, a potassium deficiency is one positive causative factor. In contrast to sodium which increases blood volume and causes constriction of blood vessels, potassium facilitates the removal of excess fluid and sodium from blood and allows blood vessels to relax.
One component of blood pressure is increased blood volume, whilst another is the inability of blood vessels to relax. Thus, ensuring that a potassium deficiency does not develop is a great way to naturally manage blood pressure.
8. Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps occur with increasing frequency when potassium levels are low. Even though one would expect spasms or cramps to happen often when potassium levels are higher, in reality, this mineral has a regulating effect at normal blood levels.
So, while potassium in excess will result in over contractility of muscle fibers, deficiency causes cramping as a result of neuromuscular dysfunction. This is most evident in the calf muscles which may spontaneously cramp.
Have you ever noticed that you feel thirsty after consuming a salt-heavy meal? This is because of a shift in the extracellular to intracellular sodium and fluid balance.
Sodium shifts water from extracellular sources (such as saliva) to intracellular sources, leading to an almost immediate sensation of thirst. In response, the body signals for you to drink more water. While sodium is a major cause of thirst, it can indirectly occur if potassium is removed from the body such as from the consumption of prescription diuretic medication.
10. Labored Breathing
Even though breathing, just like digestion is considered an involuntary reflex, a potassium deficiency quickly changes all of this.
Potassium is needed for normal nerve transmission regardless of the muscle type it innervates (whether that be voluntary or involuntary). As result, your lungs may not relax or contract as they should, leading to inefficient oxygenation of blood.
Your body is likely to notice this and cause hyperventilation, or short shallow breathing. The heart also responds in like manner, increases the number of beats per minute, and may send triggers to other organs as well. In severe cases, the lungs may fail to expand or contract at all necessitating hospitalization and ventilation.
Summary – Potassium Deficiency
Hypokalemia should not be taken for granted even though the chances are high that you will never notice a symptom of potassium deficiency. Its manifestations tend to become pronounced when you least expect it, such as following an illness that resulted in diarrhea or vomiting.
Meeting daily potassium intake is not that difficult, as a range of fruits and vegetables are rich sources of this mineral. If your doctor deems it is necessary, there are even prescription potassium medications that can help to normalize the function of the heart or diuretics that spare potassium and get rid of excess sodium and water.