Potassium is crucial to your well-being because your muscles can’t contract without it, including your heart. The recommended dietary allowance of this nutrient for adults 19 years of age and older is 4,700 milligrams. Without enough potassium, you may develop hypokalemia, a life-threatening condition. Most people consume enough potassium through a healthy diet, but because low levels can be fatal, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a potassium deficiency.
Your cells need to keep the right balance of potassium inside them and sodium outside them in order for your nerves to work and your muscles to contract. When your potassium levels drop, your muscles will feel it. You may experience fatigue, muscle weakness and muscle cramps. With severe potassium deficiency, your muscles may become paralyzed.
If your potassium levels plummet, your muscle fibers can actually leak out a protein into your bloodstream -- a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. When this protein is broken down, it damages your kidney cells. Symptoms of rhabdomyolysis include abnormal urine color, infrequent urination, muscle weakness, stiffness, aching and tenderness, fatigue and joint pain.
Your intestines need potassium to contract and keep food moving through your digestive system. With hypokalemia, your intestines can't work as well and may become paralyzed with severe and chronic low potassium levels. You may experience bloating, constipation and stomach pain.
Your heart is one of the most important, if not the most important, muscle in your body. It requires potassium to keep on beating properly. Chronically low levels of this nutrient may cause an abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, where your heart beats too fast, too slow or inconsistently. Severe arrhythmia can lead to cardiac arrest.
Causes and Food Sources
If you have a healthy diet, you probably get all the potassium you need. The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University states typical causes of hypokalemia include excessive vomiting, using diuretics and kidney disease. You also need more potassium if you have a high-sodium diet so you keep your body's potassium and sodium levels balanced. Potassium-rich foods include bananas, potatoes, prunes, oranges, tomatoes, spinach and almonds.
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