One of the most important minerals present in our body, potassium plays a crucial role to keep our health in good shape. It is basically an electrolyte and is present in ample amounts in our body. Be it maintaining blood pressure or promoting breakdown of sugar to glycogen (that acts like fuel for muscles), our body requires potassium in normal amounts to carry out these tasks effectively. It is observed that potassium deficiency (hypokalemia) is not a rarity in United States. Studies show that diarrhea, use of laxatives, uncontrolled diabetes, vomiting and alcoholism are some of the common culprits behind the onset of low potassium symptoms. Kidney disorders, poor diet, side effect of certain medicines (antibiotics) and medical conditions such blood cancer are the other factors that may reduce potassium levels.
The occurrence of symptoms will depend on how far the potassium levels have deviated from the normal range. When the dip in potassium levels is insignificant, the person might not experience any symptoms of low potassium. However, when potassium deficiency is substantial but not severe, health issues that may occur are given below:
As potassium levels dip below the normal range, healthy bowel function may take a backseat. People with low potassium are likely to experience infrequent bowel movement, which is nothing but constipation. A sluggish bowel movement or one can say its ability to contract and push the stools out of the body decreases due to hypokalemia.
The mineral potassium plays a key role in regulating movement of muscles. The brain cells (neurons) transmit electrical impulses through the nerves to the desired muscle group in order to initiate muscle movement. Without sufficient potassium levels, the neurons won't be able to send electrical signals effectively. In other words, there would be disturbances in the electrical activity of the brain, in turn affecting the contraction and relaxation of muscles. Also, the presence of potassium in normal amounts is essential for synthesis of glycogen (a form of carbohydrate found in muscles). Muscles require glycogen to carry out any physical activity such as exercise. With the onset of hypokalemia, there is decreased production of glycogen in the body. Depletion of glycogen stored in muscles eventually causes muscle cramps, muscle weakness and muscle aches. Frequent episodes of muscle cramps while doing exercise is a common complaint among patients suffering from potassium deficiency. The patient may also experience an unusual tingling sensation on the hands and legs.
A feeling of tiredness envelops people diagnosed with poor potassium levels. A moderate level physical activity seems quite an ardent task and can leave the person exhausted. The person feels weak, especially in the morning and this feeling of weakness may continue throughout the day.
"I feel thirsty all the time"; Well, this is a common response from people diagnosed with potassium deficiency. Potassium that is contained in every cell of our body does an important job of maintaining normal water balance. Potassium levels plummeting below the normal range can make the body dehydrated. So, in order to compensate for fluid loss, the person drinks water in excessive amounts throughout the day.
Loose motions or one may say diarrhea, better known as loose bowel movement can also occur due to below normal potassium levels. Thus, a drop in potassium levels can have a negative impact on healthy bowel function. So, people with persistent diarrhea that do not respond to conventional medicines need to undergo a blood test to check for nutrient deficiency.
A person suffering from low potassium levels may also show signs of edema. The kidneys also may find it difficult to dispel waste matter (urine), which can also lead to fluid retention. In edema, the body tries to retain fluid, which tends to accumulate in the feet and the hands.
There are different types of diet that have been instrumental in maintaining healthy cholesterol. One such diet that is found be useful in lowering cholesterol is the high potassium. Although, studies have not yet been able to explain how exactly potassium rich diet contribute in slashing cholesterol levels, human trials clearing show that potassium rich foods help in keeping cholesterol levels under control. No wonder, when potassium levels dip below the normal range, blood cholesterol increases dramatically.
Skin becoming extremely dry and itchy is considered to be one of the warning signs of severe potassium deficiency. The person may suffer from acne, a skin problem that is typically marked by pimples, blackheads and whiteheads.
Difficulty breathing has also been linked to severe hypokalemia. Respiratory problems are an indication that the breathing muscles have become extremely weak due to depleting potassium levels. In such a scenario, if left untreated, it can cause respiratory failure.
As aforementioned, adequate potassium in the body is necessary to ensure proper relaxation and contraction of muscles. However, very low potassium levels can severely hamper muscle movement, eventually leading to paralysis.
Irregular heartbeats can also be the result of severe hypokalemia. Also, referred to as arrhythmia, in this condition, the heart does not follow its normal beating pattern. Thus, abnormal heart arrhythmia is typically marked by heart beating too slowly or too fast. It is a known fact, that the electrical impulses of the brain ensure that the heart beats rhythmically 24 hours a day. With severe drop in potassium levels, these electrical impulses become weak, leading to erratic heartbeats.
Apart from treating the underlying cause, the doctor recommends following a diet high in potassium foods as well as may advise taking potassium supplements to overcome deficiency.