Sweet potatoes are a great source of potassium. Robynmac/Getty Images
- Early symptoms of potassium deficiency include constipation, fatigue, and muscle cramps.
- You are at a greater risk of potassium deficiency if you have inflammatory bowel disease or are taking diuretics.
- To treat potassium deficiency, eat more potassium-rich foods like sweet potatoes, bananas, and dried apricots.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Potassium is an important mineral that helps with nerve functioning and muscle contraction. If you do not consume enough or have certain underlying health problems, you may develop a deficiency.
Here’s what you need to know about potassium deficiency and how it is treated.
What does potassium do?
- Balancing fluids in the body
- Nerve function
- Muscle contraction, including keeping your heart beating regularly
- Stabilizing blood pressure
- Kidney function
The standard American diet isn’t very high in potassium-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables, and as a result, many people don’t get enough, says Stacie Stephenson, a certified nutrition specialist and board member for the American Nutritional Association.
“The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified potassium as a nutrient of public health concern because Americans are not consuming recommended amounts,” says Lisa Cooper, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health, a not-for-profit healthcare organization. “Americans have low intakes of fruits and vegetables which is a contributing factor to low potassium intake.”
Signs and symptoms of potassium deficiency
Symptoms of potassium deficiency vary depending on the severity of your condition. Signs of mild potassium deficiency include:
- Muscle weakness
More moderate cases can cause:
- Muscle cramping or spasms
- Heart rhythm abnormalities
Most people experiencing mild symptoms may not realize they have a potassium deficiency because these symptoms can be caused by many other things, like fibromyalgia or muscle strains, Stephenson says.
Signs of severe potassium deficiency, known as hypokalemia, include:
- Muscle paralysis
- Loss of control over muscles
- Difficulty breathing
Hypokalemia affects up to about 21% of hospitalized patients, mostly due to the use of diuretics or other medications, but the condition is rare among healthy people with normal kidney function.
Causes of potassium deficiency
The recommended daily amount of potassium varies by age and sex. For adult males, the recommendation is 3,400 milligrams a day. For adult females, the adequate intake is 2,600 milligrams a day, with higher recommendations during pregnancy (2,900 mg) and lactation (2,800 mg).
Most Americans don’t get adequate amounts of potassium in their diets. A very large 2012 study examining the potassium intake of adults over five years found that less than 2% consumed the recommended daily amount of potassium.
However, a lack of potassium in the diet is rarely the cause of a severe deficiency, Cooper says. If you have a severe deficiency, it’s more likely the result of:
- Diuretics, like those used to treat high blood pressure. Potassium is filtered out of your body through urine, so an increased urine output can contribute to a deficiency.
- Diarrhea or vomiting, usually due to an illness like viral gastroenteritis.
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis because these conditions can make it harder for your body to absorb nutrients from your intestines.
If you are experiencing signs of potassium deficiency, like muscle twitching, cramping, or a racing heartbeat, you should consult with your doctor, Stephenson says. Even if you don’t have low potassium, these signs could indicate another electrolyte deficiency, like magnesium, or another medical problem that needs attention.
Your doctor is likely to do a urine test to determine whether or not you have a deficiency. A normal concentration of potassium in the urine ranges from about 3.6 to 5.0 mmol/L. Your doctor might also conduct a blood test or an electrocardiogram — a test that records the electrical activity of the heart — to diagnose you.
Potassium deficiency treatment
If you think you may have a potassium deficiency, you should consult with your doctor, Cooper says. Your doctor may recommend a supplement in more severe cases, but mild cases are usually treated by increasing high-potassium foods.
“By adding foods like high potassium fruits and vegetables, you are also adding vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that have a positive impact on health,” Cooper says.
Foods that contain potassium include:
- Dried apricots — ¼ cup contains 378 mg of potassium
- Bananas — 1 medium banana contains 442 mg of potassium
- Salmon — 3 oz cooked contain 534 mg of potassium
- Sweet potatoes — 1 medium sweet potato contains 542 mg of potassium
- White beans — ½ cup contains 595 mg of potassium
- Tomato paste — ¼ cup contains 669 mg of potassium
In severe cases, a doctor might recommend a potassium supplement or potassium via an intravenous (IV) solution.
There are many different types of dietary supplements for potassium. Not all multivitamins contain potassium, but the ones that do usually provide about 80 mg of potassium. Potassium-only supplements typically contain up to 99 mg of potassium. Your doctor can help you determine the appropriate dosage for you.
Potassium is an electrolyte that assists in many bodily functions, including muscle movement and cardiac function. Some medications, like diuretics, or illnesses that cause vomiting and diarrhea can result in a potassium deficiency. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that contain potassium can help you maintain proper levels.