What Causes Low Potassium?
While it’s important to understand potassium deficiency symptoms — or hypokalemia symptoms — it’s critical you also know what causes them. So, what causes hypokalemia?
There are multiple causes, but the most common is losing potassium in urine due to certain medications. These diuretics or water pills are often prescribed to people with heart disease and high blood pressure.
Additionally, some potassium deficiency causes are linked to vomiting and diarrhea, which removes the vital nutrient from the digestive tract. In other cases, low potassium causes are as simple as not getting enough of this nutrient through diet alone. Other hypokalemia causes are linked to:
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Chronic kidney disease
- Laxative use
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Folic acid deficiency
- Excessive sweating
- Antibiotic use
- Primary aldosteronism
Although potassium deficiency is uncommon in healthy adults, hypokalemia affects up to 21% of hospitalized patients, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements.
By understanding what causes low potassium levels, it becomes easier to treat hypokalemia symptoms. On this page are details related to mild potassium deficiency symptoms, as well as severe signs of hypokalemia that you can use to judge where you fall on the spectrum.
However, note that while understanding the symptoms can help you get in touch with your body, the only way to know for sure if you suffer from a potassium deficiency is to get a blood test.
Signs of Hypokalemia
Potassium is an abundant intracellular cation. This essential nutrient is found in numerous foods and can be taken as a supplement. Potassium is needed for normal cell function, mainly because it maintains transmembrane electrochemical gradients and intracellular fluid volume. Because potassium is found in many of the bodily tissues, the body can suffer without enough of the nutrient.
Most people get enough potassium through diet alone. However, there are certain age groups and conditions that have a higher chance of developing hypokalemia. For example, hypokalemia symptoms are rarely seen among children unless they are suffering from vomiting or diarrhea.
Even in these cases, the children rarely suffer from persistent hypokalemia causes. Instead, their conditions lead to a temporary shortage, which can be easily remedied.
It’s most important to pay attention to the symptoms of potassium deficiency in elderly people. This age group tends to use more medications, including diuretics, which can lead to hypokalemia symptoms.
There’s also a relation between potassium deficiency symptoms based on sex. Men require more potassium than women, which makes it easier for them to suffer from signs of potassium deficiency.
The symptoms of potassium deficiency in females might not be as noticeable as those found in men, especially men who work a physically demanding job where they produce a lot of sweat.
Either way, the signs of potassium deficiency in adults range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of the potassium shortage.
Mild Hypokalemia Symptoms
The best way to tell where you stand with potassium balance is to get a blood test. If you have normal levels of potassium, the result will range between 3.5 mmol/L and 5.1 mmol/L in adults. If these numbers dip between 2.9 mmol/L and 3.4 mmol/L, mild hypokalemia symptoms might be active.
The mild symptoms of potassium deficiency in the body can include an abnormal heart rhythm, muscle weakness, muscle aches, tremors, cramps, bloating and constipation.
While studies show that nearly 98% of Americans don’t get enough potassium through diet alone, it’s rarely enough to cause a severe deficiency. In these cases, a person may not even realize they aren’t getting enough potassium because the symptoms can be difficult to detect.
However, there is a strong relation between sodium intake and potassium deficiency, according to the CDC. If a person is consuming too much sodium and not getting enough potassium, it’s possible to suffer from high blood pressure. This is caused by an imbalance of electrolytes in the body.
Now, let’s examine some of the mild hypokalemia symptoms commonly seen.
Abnormal Heart Rhythm
If you’ve ever noticed your heart skipping a beat, you’ve suffered from a heart palpitation. This is most often linked to anxiety or stress, but can also be caused by a potassium deficiency.
Potassium flows in and out of the heart cells, helping to regulate heartbeat. When the potassium level becomes low, the flow could be affected, which results in palpitations.
Additionally, arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeats, has also been linked to potassium deficiency. This condition is more severe than the occasional palpitation.
One of the first noticeable potassium deficiency symptoms in adults is muscle weakness. Potassium is responsible for regulating muscle contractions. Studies show, as the blood potassium levels drop too low, muscles produce weaker contractions, making it harder to accomplish daily tasks.
This muscle weakness often goes hand-in-hand with fatigue. A lack of potassium has been shown in research to affect glucose levels. Because the deficiency can hinder how the body handles sugar and other nutrients, it’s possible to become easily fatigued and tired.
Muscle Aches, Tremors and Cramps
As previously discussed, potassium helps to regulate muscular contraction. But when potassium levels are low, muscle cramps can occur and the contractions could become uncontrolled.
Additionally, research indicates that potassium helps relay nervous system signals from the brain to the muscles, so a shortage of potassium can increase the severity of aches and cramps.
Inside the muscle cells, potassium also ends contractions by moving the relay signals away effectively. But, anytime potassium levels become too low, the brain has trouble relaying the appropriate signals to and from the muscle cells. This is what causes the prolonged muscle cramps and contractions.
Bloating and Constipation
What’s interesting is that one of the leading causes of potassium loss in the body is digestive trouble. Still, a lack of potassium can lead to further digestive problems, according to studies. This vital nutrient is needed to relay messages from the brain to the digestive system muscles. The stomach and intestines must have normal contractions in order to churn and propel food through the body.
However, when potassium levels drop, the brain becomes incapable of relaying these signals effectively. Digestive system contractions become slower and weaker, which slows down the processing of food. The result of this imbalance is constipation and bloating.
Severe Hypokalemia Symptoms
If potassium levels drop under 2.5 mmol/L, symptoms become worse. Severe potassium deficiency symptoms include arm and leg paralysis, delayed reflexes, rhabdomyolysis and difficulty breathing.
However, it’s possible to treat severe potassium deficiency symptoms in humans before they become a threat to your health. By understanding the effects of hypokalemia, it’s possible to reverse the course.
Arm and Leg Paralysis
Hypokalemic periodic paralysis is defined as extreme muscle weakness that leads to a temporary inability to move legs and arms. These attacks can last for hours or days, depending on the severity, and the attacks may occur without any sort of warning.
Often, a viral illness, excessive exercise or taking various medications can exacerbate symptoms. Most individuals will regain all their muscle strength back, especially if the potassium deficiency is dealt with.
Hyporeflexia (Delayed Reflexes)
Hyporeflexia is a condition that causes the muscles to be less responsive. A lack of potassium can cause hyporeflexia, but the underlying problem is that the brain is unable to send messages to the muscles.
Once hyporeflexia sets it, accomplishing daily tasks can become more difficult. Holding objects, sitting up straight, walking and driving can all become challenging with hyporeflexia. However, these scary signs and symptoms of potassium deficiency can also be reversed with proper treatment.
Rhabdomyolysis refers to the breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle. As the muscle breaks down, myoglobin is released into the bloodstream. This protein is responsible for storing oxygen in the muscles.
However, having too much myoglobin can also lead to kidney damage. In addition, rhabdomyolysis can actually lead to elevated potassium levels in the blood, which can cause an irregular heartbeat and even cardiac arrest. On top of that, one in four people with this condition also develop issues with their liver.
One of the most severe consequences of potassium deficiency is the inability to breathe correctly.
Potassium is responsible for sending signals from the brain to help the lungs contract and expand. But studies show when potassium levels drop to dangerous levels, the lungs may not be able to operate as intended. The resulting shortness of breath is what makes it difficult to breathe.
Guidelines for Correcting a Potassium Deficiency
Now that you understand the causes of hypokalemia in adults, it’s time to reverse the damage. If you are suffering from any deficiency symptoms for potassium, you first want to look at your diet.
The Office of Dietary Supplements suggests most adults should receive between 2,300 and 3,400 mg of potassium daily. The majority of this can be received through a healthy diet.
Consider adding these potassium-rich foods to your diet:
- Dried apricots
- Acorn squash
- Baked potato
- Kidney beans
- Orange juice
- Raw spinach
- Chicken breast
The body can absorb up to ninety percent of dietary potassium. In food sources, potassium is delivered in different forms, including sulfate, phosphate and citrate. However, you will not find potassium chloride, which is only included in some dietary supplements and salt substitutes.
Potassium supplements are also available in chloride, citrate, aspartate, phosphate, gluconate and bicarbonate forms. Some multivitamin supplements include potassium — typically about 80 mg. There are also potassium-only supplements to choose from, many of which contain up to 99 mg.
A 2016 study shows that the human body can absorb around 94% of the potassium gluconate found in supplements. This number is comparable to the absorption rate of eating a potato.
Length of Time To Correct a Potassium Deficiency
It’s important to start working to reverse symptoms of potassium deficiency as soon as you notice them, as severe hypokalemia symptoms are more difficult to correct than mild ones. However, how long it takes to correct potassium deficiency is different for each person.
If you are suffering from a mild case of potassium deficiency from heavy exercise or stomach flu, replacing fluids and adding potassium-rich foods should correct the situation quickly.
If you are taking regular diuretics, you will need to add more potassium in your daily diet to counteract the depletion. It’s also possible to have your healthcare provider prescribe a different diuretic that may be able to keep your potassium levels more regulated.
Once hypokalemia becomes severe, you need more intensive treatment. Your doctor may want to give you potassium through an IV, which can raise your intake much quicker compared with other methods.
However, if an underlying condition is causing your potassium levels to drop, it’s vital that you treat that ailment first. Otherwise, you will find yourself fighting to keep your potassium levels elevated.
With mild potassium deficiency symptoms, you can expect to return to full health within a few days of treatment. If you don’t notice a difference in your symptoms after making changes to your diet or adding a supplement, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider about possible underlying conditions.