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Potassium 101: All You Need To Know About Potassium

To function properly, our bodies need various nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Most of those come from the food that we eat and the liquids we drink.

The majority of people know the names of these nutrients, but they often don’t know what they are and the function they play in our bodies.

For example, have you ever wondered why we need potassium? What is potassium anyway?

What is potassium?

Potassium is a mineral working as an electrolyte that your body requires to function properly. Electrolytes help electrical impulses travel throughout our bodies, and potassium is essential for your heart muscles and nerves to work properly.

This electrolyte also helps maintain a steady heartbeat, move nutrients into cells, and unnecessary waste products out of the cells and out of your body.

Furthermore, this electrolyte is highly reactive in water, producing positively charged ions when dissolved.

Potassium-rich foods

This allows it to be a part of many processes throughout the body, which other minerals cannot do.

Potassium is also essential in controlling blood pressure, digestion, and bodily pH levels. These are all extremely important functions, so maintaining a healthy diet rich in potassium is crucial, especially since our bodies don’t produce it. 

Excess potassium is removed from our bodies by healthy kidneys, which, in turn, help balance normal levels of this mineral.

Make sure to check out: Can You Check Your Potassium Level At Home? and The Best Low Potassium Snacks (Eat This, Not That).

Why is potassium important?

Nearly 98% of the potassium in your body is found in cells. Out of this, 80% is found in your muscle cells, and 20% is located in your bones, liver, and red blood cells.

This electrolyte helps transport messages and signals from your cells to different body parts.

As a result, having appropriate amounts of potassium in your body is essential for proper metabolism, body functions, and muscle and nerves responses. It also promotes healthy hydration levels.

Potassium along with sodium are two important electrolytes contributing to an equal fluid balance inside our bodies. If these minerals aren’t present in your cells, it leads to dehydration that can ultimately affect your kidneys, heart, and other organs.

As a result, consuming enough water is important for these electrolytes to perform their jobs properly and effectively.

One glass of whole-fat cow’s milk contains 349 mg of potassium

Potassium is also incredibly essential for controlling blood pressure. High blood pressure is an incredibly deadly condition, remaining the leading cause of death worldwide.

Potassium removes excess sodium — which causes increased blood pressure over time. This mineral is especially effective in people prone to high blood pressure, balancing it out.

In addition, this mineral may help prevent strokes. Strokes are caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain.

This electrolyte also helps reduce water retention, which is a particular issue for people eating a diet high in sodium.

Potassium increases urine production and lowers sodium levels, preventing excess water buildup that is often very uncomfortable, and in the long run, harmful to your health.

Through that, potassium also helps fight kidney stones.

What are some potassium-rich foods?

Potassium-rich foods
Potassium-rich foods

Potassium is found in a multitude of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and fish. This makes it an easy mineral to add to your diet. Foods rich in potassium include:

Tap on any of the above to go to a dedicated article.

Additionally, over-the-counter potassium supplements are available, but they’re not recommended because it’s easy to overdose on them.

Nevertheless, people suffering from chronic potassium deficiency might get a prescription for potassium supplements with a higher dose than those available in pharmacies.

High-dose potassium supplements aren’t available without a prescription since overdosing on this mineral can have deadly consequences. So high-does supplements should be taken under the doctor’s care.

What happens if your potassium levels are too low?

For most adults, it’s recommended to consume around 3,400 mg of potassium daily for healthy males and 2,600 mg for healthy females.

This value differed depending on the age, health conditions, and whether the woman is pregnant or breastfeeding. However, these are general guidelines that help maintain balanced levels of this mineral.

Low potassium levels rarely cause deficiencies. These occur when your body suddenly loses too much potassium in a short period of time.

This can happen due to vomiting, chronic diarrhea, excessive sweating, magnesium deficiency, and in other situations when your body loses lots of water.

In addition, other factors may cause potassium deficiency. Those include:

  • drinking too much alcohol
  • taking certain antibiotics
  • smoking certain types of tobacco
  • using some astma medications

Even though developing potassium deficiency for the above-mentioned reasons is unlikely, it’s important to keep in mind that it might happen.

Often called hypokalemia, the symptoms vary depending on the severity of the deficiency. If you’re experiencing temporary potassium deficiency, for example, after an illness, you may not have any symptoms at all.

People with kidney problems should avoid taking in too much potassium
People with kidney problems should avoid taking in too much potassium

This is because your potassium levels will return to normal after you start eating properly again and drink enough water.

However, severe and prolonged potassium deficiencies can be life-threatening as this is an essential mineral. Symptoms of a serious potassium deficiency include:

  • extreme fatigue
  • muscles spasms, weakness, and muscle cramping
  • irregular heartbeat
  • stomach irritation, such as constipation, nausea, or vomiting
  • confusion, in people with kidney disease
  • breathing problems
  • muscular paralysis

Generally, a test for hypokalemia is done by drawing blood or ordering an electrocardiogram to examine your heart.

Nevertheless, these symptoms can mean many other conditions, so always consult with your doctor before you start self-medicating or taking supplements.

Unaddressed potassium deficiency can lead to severe health conditions, including:

  • high blood pressure
  • increased risk of kidney stones
  • low calcium levels in the bones

What happens if your potassium levels are too high?

One cup of cantaloupe balls contains 473 mg of potassium

Just as with low potassium levels, overdosing on potassium happens very rarely. It can happen mostly when people consume supplements on top of a healthy diet, as most people in developed worlds have a diet with enough potassium in it.

Too much potassium occurs the most in people with poor kidney functions, making their bodies unable to remove the excess of this electrolyte.

Consuming potassium supplements can be dangerous since their easy to overdose on due to their small size.

Including too many supplements in your diet also weakens your kidneys’ ability to remove excess of many minerals, not just potassium.

Potassium overdose is rare, but it’s more likely in people who have:

  • Addison’s disease
  • Alcoholism
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Kidney disease

Nevertheless, potassium overdose does occur. It’s rare for people to consume a balanced diet. Hence it’s more often seen in people who take too many potassium supplements.

Also referred to as hyperkalemia, many risk factors can increase the likelihood of overdosing on potassium.

These include cocaine use, taking too many diuretics, chemotherapy, or severe burns.

One medium-sized orange provides you with 237 mg of potassium

One of the most common symptoms of hyperkalemia is an abnormal heartbeat, called arrhythmia. You should contact your doctor immediately if you have difficulty breathing, extreme muscle weakness, fatigue, severe abdominal pain, weak pulse, or chest pain.

Severe and untreated cases can even lead to death. Therefore, if you know you have certain risk factors, you should contact your doctor to have occasional blood work to monitor any changes.

How can I raise or lower my potassium levels quickly?

There are many options for treating imbalanced potassium levels, depending on the severity of the condition. There aren’t any surefire ways to raise or lower potassium levels instantly, but some of these ways work faster than others.

Hypokalemia (low potassium levels)

Taking potassium supplements is the first course of action to increase potassium levels. However, these take some time to work, so they’re not the fastest option.

They’re also most effective for people with healthy kidneys, so this option isn’t suitable for everyone.

In severe cases, people with hypokalemia might require IV (intravenous) treatment, especially if the person has an irregular heartbeat. This is one of the fastest methods since it delivers potassium right into your bloodstream.

These methods require discussing treatment options with your doctor as you can’t give yourself an IV therapy or take higher-dose potassium supplements on your own.

One cup of fresh raspberries provides you with around 186 mg of potassium

If you feel like you’re suffering from low potassium levels (not hypokalemia), try increasing your intake of foods rich in potassium.

If it doesn’t work, make sure to contact your doctor as severe potassium deficiency can be life-threatening.

Hyperkalemia (high potassium levels)

Mild cases of hyperkalemia can be addressed using prescription medication that promotes the excretion of potassium from your body.

Similarly, your doctor might prescribe you diuretics that promote kidney function and urine production.

If you have a more severe case, you might need kidney dialysis. This method is often used in cases with people who suffer from kidney issues and kidney failure.

Since kidneys play a major part in washing out dangerous and unnecessary substances, kidney problems might cause difficulty in flushing out excess potassium.

Do potassium supplements interact with other drugs?

If you’re taking any medication (especially prescription medication), you should refrain from increasing your potassium intake without talking to your doctor. 

Some drugs called angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, for example, can stop the body from removing potassium, leading to hyperkalemia.

Furthermore, if a person suffers from kidney failure, their kidneys are already slow at removing chemicals and substances from the body.

A one-ounce serving of dark chocolate made with around 70-85% cocoa contains 200 mg of potassium

So if you’re taking medicine meant to improve kidney function, supplementing potassium levels can be dangerous. The same goes for medication for type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, certain diuretics cause your body to lose potassium at an increased rate, leading to a deficiency.

Your doctor should closely monitor your potassium levels in these cases, especially if taking a diuretic is necessary because of your medical condition.

Can you check your potassium level at home?

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to check for potassium levels at home. There are many tech companies, though, that are currently working on developing a home kit that would allow people to check for their potassium levels at home.

If developed and approved, these tests would work like blood sugar tests: You would prick your finger, place it on a special testing stick, and wait for the result.

Since these are not currently available, you have to go to a doctor and take a blood test there. Listening to your body and checking in with yourself to see if you notice any new symptoms is another good way of figuring out whether you should book a doctor’s appointment.

How can you keep your potassium at a healthy level?

If you’re consuming a healthy, balanced diet, maintaining stable potassium levels is relatively easy. Generally, people who eat healthily don’t need to follow any special restrictions to ensure their potassium levels stay in check.

Nevertheless, if you’re worried about your potassium levels or just want to follow a healthier dietary plan, make sure to limit your consumption of foods especially rich in potassium.

It’s hard to overdose on potassium by eating food, but if you’re eating potassium-rich food regularly, you might want to make some dietary changes.

Moreover, if you’re on dialysis, make sure to follow all the recommendations that your doctor gives you.

Since your kidneys aren’t working at their best, you have to be extra careful about consuming produce particularly high in potassium since your body might not be able to flush out the excess fully.

If you’re trying to control your potassium intake, make sure not to drink or use the liquids from canned fruits and vegetables.

One medium-sized peach contains 285 mg of potassium

These contain high amounts of potassium and sodium, forcing your kidneys to work harder. This also means that your kidneys won’t be able to get rid of the potassium that is in excess.

Potassium is a necessary electrolyte that helps in maintaining a healthy metabolism, transporting nerve impulses, and protecting heart health.

Therefore, it’s imperative to ensure that you have sufficient amounts of this mineral in your diet.

Make sure to check out: Can You Check Your Potassium Level At Home? and The Best Low Potassium Snacks (Eat This, Not That).