Potassium is an important mineral and electrolyte that helps reduce blood pressure, water retention, and protects the body against strokes and kidney stones. Because it is an electrolyte it also works in sending nerve signals and regulating muscle contractions.
Potassium levels in the body need to be well regulated as having a high potassium level or too little potassium leads to health problems and may even be fatal. Doctors diagnose a potassium deficiency or hypokalemia if you have less than 3.5 mmol of potassium per liter.
Hypokalemia is usually a side effect of losing a lot of body fluids through prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, unhealthy kidneys, and taking diuretics or laxatives for a long period of time. Overconsumption of alcohol and certain types of tobacco may also cause your body to leech out the mineral.
Hypokalaemia is not usually a nutritional deficiency but can occur as a result of not consuming foods high in potassium.
Read on for 10 warning signs that you have a potassium deficiency so that you can take back control of your health.
- General Weakness
The first sign of potassium deficiency is a weakness. Potassium helps your body to regulate its muscle contractions. Lack of sufficient potassium leads to weaker contractions making it harder to lift heavy things or do simple exercises.
Another early symptom of hypokalemia is getting tired very easily. Potassium plays a key role in helping your body’s absorption of nutrients. Its deficiency can negatively affect how your body uses nutrients.
For example, low levels can reduce insulin production leading to high blood sugar levels. This along with the lack of other nutrients will cause you to be fatigued.
- Muscle Cramps
Hypokalaemia can also cause your muscles to contract and twitch involuntarily. Some muscle cramps can be extremely painful and uncomfortable.
As an electrolyte, potassium sends messages from the brain on when to start and stop muscle contractions. Lower levels of potassium affect the proper balance of messages sent to muscles leading to prolonged muscle contractions or cramps.
Low potassium levels can be the cause of your digestive problem such as bloating and constipation. Potassium sends messages to your digestive muscles on when to contract and release.
A low level of potassium may cause messages to the digestive system to be reduced, leading to food staying undigested in your gut for longer periods. Some people have even suggested that hypokalaemia can contribute to the complete paralyzation of the gut.
- Heart Palpitations
Heart palpitations are a condition characterized by irregular heartbeats. Your heart can suddenly start beating faster, harder, or may even sometimes skip beats.
This usually happens if someone is anxious or stressed. However, it can also be a symptom of hypokalemia.
Other than heart palpitations, low potassium can also cause arrhythmia─a dangerous heart disease that is identifiable through an irregular heartbeat. Potassium helps regulate the heartbeat so it follows that a deficiency in the mineral could cause heart problems.
If your heart doesn’t pump enough oxygen to the rest of your body you will experience shortness of breath and won’t be able to take part in strenuous physical activities.
- Muscle Aches And Stiffness
If you frequently experience muscle pulls, aches, and stiffness, then you may be having a potassium deficiency. Muscle aches and stiffness may be a sign of rapid muscle breakdown, also called rhabdomyolysis. It is caused by a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the muscles.
Potassium levels in the blood help regulate blood flow to your muscles so low levels of the mineral lead to restriction of blood flow to your muscles. This cuts off of the supply of much-needed oxygen causing your muscle cells to rupture and leak leading to rapid muscle degeneration. This is what causes muscle aches and stiffness.
- Tingling And Numbness
It is normal to experience tingling and numbness in the hands and feet but persistent tingles and numbness could be a symptom of hypokalemia. Potassium is necessary for optimum nerve functions so its deficiency will weaken nerve signals. This can lead to tingling and numbness, a condition also known as paraesthesia.
It is best to see a doctor if you constantly have numbness and tingling in your hands and legs.
- Respiratory Problems
Potassium deficiency can cause breathing problems. As mentioned, potassium sends messages to muscles to expand and contract. The lungs have muscles that receive these messages so a low potassium level can cause your lungs to operate abnormally.
Without potassium your lungs won’t expand and contract as needed, leading to shortness of breath. Prolonged potassium deficiency can cause your lungs to stop working which is fatal.
- Mood Swings
Erratic mood swings may not be an emotional illness, they could be a sign of hypokalaemia. Low potassium levels may affect the optimum operation of signals that maintain brain function. Erratic signaling to the brain due to low potassium causes mental fatigue and mood swings.
A six-month scientific study found that 20% of mental patients had a potassium deficiency. However, more study is needed into the relationship between low potassium levels and mental health.
If you discover any of the above symptoms you should visit your doctor for a comprehensive test to establish what the problem may be. Advanced stages of hypokalemia can lead to paralysis or even respiratory failure. It’s important to try and cure the deficiency as early as possible.
Treatment of mild cases of hypokalaemia involves taking oral potassium supplements. You may also be encouraged to eat potassium-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. In severe cases of deficiency or if the supplements don’t work your doctor may give you a potassium IV.
If your hypokalemia is a result of other diseases such as Cushing’s syndrome, your doctor will try and treat the underlying disease which will naturally take care of your low potassium symptoms. For those that have low potassium due to medications such as diuretics and laxatives, the doctor may stop the medication.
Be Proactive and Preventative With Potassium Deficiency
Potassium deficiency may be the cause of common ailments such as heart palpitations, muscle aches, and stiffness, as well as constipation and fatigue. If you notice a persistent case of any of our 10 symptoms, seek medical attention urgently to find out if there is an underlying disease.
Hypokalaemia can be fatal so the earlier it is treated the better. We discuss more healthcare tips and advice on our site.
For more information on healthy living, read the rest of our blog.