SYMPTOMS POTASSIUM DEFICIENCY

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HOW TO RECOGNIZE A SHORTAGE OF POTASSIUM


Potassium is an essential mineral to the human body. It helps to regulate muscle contractions, fluid balance, and it helps to maintain a healthy nerve function. Potassium is an electrolyte, which means that it can efficiently conduct electricity. That is why it works so well with muscle contractions. It’s also the third most abundant mineral in your body. A potassium deficiency is also known as Hypokalemia and comes with multiple symptoms.

Potassium is a important mineral to the human body. Since our body is unable to create this mineral itself, we need to get potassium from our foods.You can find potassium in many foods, like bananas, cantaloupes, apricots, grapefruits, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, eggplants, plankton and many more fruits and vegetables. Low-fat or fat-free dairy products often also contain high amounts of potassium (1).

A survey from 2013 found that about 98% of the American popular do not maintain the recommended daily intake of potassium. This phenomenon can be explained through the Western Diet, as it uses mainly processed foods rather than fresh fruits and vegetables (2).

There are certain groups of people that have a higher risk of creating a potassium deficiency. Those people may benefit from using potassium supplements next to their daily meals. It is, however, important to note that if you suspect you have a shortage of potassium, you should always consult a doctor before taking any supplements.

People at risk of getting a potassium deficiency are:

- People with a chronic bowel disease, like Crohn’s disease,
- People who abuse alcohol,
- Smoking people,
- People that live in hot climates,
- People with gastrointestinal diseases which cause severe vomiting or diarrhea,
- Malnourished people, including people with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia,
- People that consume foods from potassium-deficient soils.

A shortage of potassium can be recognized by the following symptoms. If you recognize one or more of these symptoms, it is advisable to contact your physician.


1. DIGESTIVE PROBLEMS



Potassium helps to send signals from the intestinal muscles towards the brain, and the other way around. When these signals arrive in the intestines, they send out a message to relax and contract to digest the present food (3). When the body is low on potassium, these signals can not pass through as quickly, causing the intestines to function less. The muscle contractions will be weaker and slower, causing aches, bloating, or constipation (4).

An old study from the 1950s with dogs found that a severe deficiency can even cause full paralysis. This was due to the heaping of gas in their intestines (5).

However, a study from 2015 concludes that the link between gut paralysis and a deficiency in potassium is not entirely clear and requires more research (6).

In short: potassium helps to send signals between the gut and the brains. A lack of potassium blocks these signals, leading to digestive issues like bloating, aches, and obstipation.


2. FATIQUE



When your body does not contain enough potassium, the muscles won’t be able to function as well. This causes them to have weaker contractions and thus to make you feel faint (7).

All movements also cost more energy as your muscles require more power for the same tasks, making you feel tired and fatigued more easily. However, an overdose of potassium has also been found to show symptoms of muscle weakness, as your muscles function less effectively (8).

In short: a deficiency of potassium can cause you to feel fatigued more easily. However, an overdose of potassium can also cause muscle weakness. Therefore, it’s essential to find the right balance.


3. TINGLING SENSATIONS



Because potassium is essential for the functioning of the nervous system, Hypokalemia can often lead to a tingling sensation in the hands and feet of a person (9,10). This happens when the nerve ends are weakened and can’t transport impulses as well as without a deficiency.

Of course, everyone experiences tingling sensations in their limbs from time to time. However, when it seems to be continually happening to you, it may be wise to consult your physician.

In short: a shortage of potassium can lead to paresthesia.


4. CHANGES IN MOOD



Potassium may negatively affect the feelings of a person when they happen to have a deficiency. A study from 2009 with 347 psychiatric patients found that 20,5% of the patients had a potassium deficiency (11). The same study also found that in acute psychiatric patients, the potassium levels were almost always too low. A shortage of potassium leads to a phenomenon called ‘hypokalemic periodic paralysis’. This phenomenon disrupts the nerve signals, leading to small amounts of paralysis. Therefore, when you have a lack of potassium, your brain signals for optimal functioning will work less well (12).

In short: a deficiency in potassium can cause mood swings, and, in severe cases, depression or other psychological issues.


5. MUSCLE CRAMPS



Muscle cramps are defined as sudden or prolonged contractions of the muscles, often leading to pain. As we know, potassium improves the transmittance of signals from one nerve to the other. Therefore, a healthy potassium level helps to relieve cramps by communicating the right signals to the particular body parts (13).

However, a study from 1990 found that low levels of potassium in the blood can lead to more muscle cramps (14). The brain is unable to relay the signals to your muscles, resulting in prolonged contractions, which cause cramps.

In short: a shortage of potassium can lead to muscle cramps because the brain can’t correctly relay nerve signals towards the muscles anymore, leading to prolonged or sudden pains.


6. HEART PALPITATIONS



Sometimes, you may feel your heart skipping a beat, and not in the figurative sense. Other times, it will feel as if your heart is racing. These events are called heart palpitations, and there are multiple reasons why this can happen. For most people, a sudden heart palpitation every now and then won’t do any harm. However, when this happens for a prolonged period, you may want to look into it (15).

A shortage of potassium can cause heart palpitations. Since potassium travels through the bloodstream, it helps to regulate your heartbeat. When you miss the minimum level of potassium in your blood, the sudden change in potassium levels can cause your heart to “jump” (16).

While heart palpitations are often harmless, a potassium deficiency can also lead to arrhythmia, irregular heartbeat. Arrhythmia can lead to more severe heart problems (17).

In short: a shortage of potassium can lead to more heart palpitations, or in severe cases, arrhythmia.


7. DIFFICULTY BREATHING



The electrolyte properties of potassium help to transfer signals towards muscles to help them contract and relax. A shortage of potassium can cause your heart to beat irregularly, as we mentioned above. This irregular heartbeat can contribute to a shortage of breath as your lungs lack the needed oxygen levels (16).

Another cause for breathing difficulties due to a potassium deficiency is that your nerves can’t correctly transport the needed signals for the muscles to contract, leading to smaller and lesser lung contractions. This makes the breathing process harder to fulfill, which leads to shortness of breath (18).

In short: when you have too little potassium in your blood and body, you may experience difficulty breathing due to heart palpitations or lessened lung contractions.


8. MUSCLE STIFFNESS



While muscle cramps can occur when you suffer from a shortage of potassium, muscle stiffness is often a sign of a more severe deficiency. Another reason for muscle stiffness due to a potassium deficiency can even be something called ‘rhabdomyolysis.’ This is the rapid breakdown of muscles, leading not only to stiffness but also to the loss of strength and muscles (19).

Here too, blood flow contributes to muscle stiffness. As potassium flows through your blood, a lack of potassium will cause less potassium to be transported to your muscles. In severe cases, the lack of potassium causes your blood vessels to contract and to restrict blood flow to your muscles. When your muscles then receive too little blood, they can leak or rupture, leading to breakdown with stiffness and aches as additional symptoms. (20).

In short: in severe cases of a potassium deficiency, you can experience muscle stiffness and aches as additional symptoms to the breakdown of muscle tissue due to restricted blood flow.


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