Potassium is a type of mineral called an electrolyte. Other electrolytes include sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Electrolytes carry an electric charge, and control the electrical activity of your body, including the heart. They also affect your hydration and muscle function.
Potassium is critical to your body’s functions, and without it you can have serious health problems. Your body needs potassium to break down and use carbohydrates and proteins. It’s also used to help build muscles.
A healthy adult needs 4.7 grams of potassium a day.
Low potassium is called hypokalemia. The symptoms include severe muscle fatigue, feeling weak, and muscle cramps. If you’re on a diuretic medication that causes your body to lose too much potassium and you have any of theses symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately. Potassium affects the function of all your muscles, most importantly your heart muscles. That means low potassium can lead to heart arrhythmia or attack, especially in those who already have heart problems.
What Causes Low Potassium?
Some chronic conditions can cause low potassium levels. So can vomiting and diarrhea, along with long-term kidney disease, alcoholism, and eating disorders like bulimia, which involve forced vomiting and excessive use of laxatives.
Because of this, over-the-counter fluids recommended for people with vomiting and diarrhea usually contain potassium, as do many sports drinks, which are also sometimes suggested to help with those symptoms.
As mentioned earlier, you might also experience low potassium if you take diuretics for a medical condition. In that case, your doctor may prescribe potassium-sparing diuretics to prevent potassium loss.
If you have to go to an emergency room because of low potassium, you could be given fluids containing electrolytes or intravenous potassium.
Non-emergencies can be treated with supplements, but talk to your doctor before you take them. The supplements don’t interact well with some medications, and your problems could be solved by a simple change to your eating habits.
Eat Your Way to Better Potassium Levels
Luckily, potassium is found in lots of foods you eat every day!
Bananas contain a healthy dose of potassium, and some say bananas can help you avoid muscle cramps. Up your banana intake with a banana-walnut smoothie or some delicious paleo-friendly banana bread. Oranges are another good source, as are mangoes, kiwis, apricots, dates, and avocado.
Vegetables that are high in beta-carotene also tend to contain a lot of potassium, like carrots, sweet potatoes, and red peppers. What a perfect excuse to try this recipe for sweet potato and red pepper soup
The sea is another great source of potassium. Sardines contain plenty of it, with 365 mg per can. If you need convincing about the salty critters, this flavorful recipe for Persian sardine sabzee will blow your mind. Salmon is also a great source of potassium; one fillet contains about 1.94 grams. In this recipe, the already heart-healthy fish is steamed to keep added fat low and hold in flavor. Serve with a tomato and red pepper salad for a light, colorful meal.
Grilled steak can be a healthy part of getting enough potassium, especially when combined with tomatoes, leafy greens, and peanuts like in this Thai recipe.
The bottom line is that potassium is essential for good health, and it’s pretty easy to get enough of it with a healthy diet. Sudden onset of low potassium symptoms should concern you, especially if you are on certain diuretics or have lost fluids through vomiting or diarrhea. If you experience ongoing symptoms of low potassium, see your doctor for a blood test and treatment recommendations.