Potassium is a mineral that your body needs to work properly. It is a type of electrolyte. It helps your nerves to function and muscles to contract. It helps your heartbeat stay regular. It also helps move nutrients into cells and waste products out of cells. A diet rich in potassium helps to offset some of sodium’s harmful effects on blood pressure. A normal blood result for potassium is 3.5-5.
So, it’s pretty important to make sure that you are getting enough.
High potassium (called “hyperkalemia”) is a medical problem in which you have too much potassium in your blood. This means that your blood level is greater than 5. Too much potassium in your blood can be dangerous. It can cause serious heart problems and even death. This is probably the most dangerous electrolyte to have a high level of. Most people who have hyperkalemia also have kidney disease. A disorder called “Addison’s disease”, which can occur if your body does not make enough of certain hormones, is another common cause. Hormones are chemicals produced by different glands and organs, including the kidneys, to trigger certain responses in your body. Burns or other severe injuries can also cause hyperkalemia. This occurs because your body, in response to severe burns or injuries releases extra potassium in your blood. When diabetes is not controlled, it has a direct effect on your kidneys which are responsible for balancing potassium in your body.
Many people have few, if any, symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they are usually mild and non-specific. This is the reason that hyperkalemia is so dangerous. Most people who have it, don’t realize that they are unwell. You may feel some muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, nausea, or other unusual feelings. It usually develops slowly over many weeks or months. If hyperkalemia comes on suddenly and you have very high levels of potassium, you may feel heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, or vomiting. Sudden or severe hyperkalemia is a life-threatening condition. It requires immediate medical care.
When you have hyperkalemia, your doctor is likely to recommend a low potassium diet and may order a medication that will help your body excrete potassium. Generally speaking, hyperkalemia is something that is treated in the hospital setting because of the potential for fatal outcomes.
Low blood levels of potassium, or hypokalemia, means that your level has dropped below 3.5. Vomiting and loose stools are the most common causes of hypokalemia. It can also be caused by kidney or adrenal disfunction. Medications such as diuretics, laxatives, asthma medications and some types of antibiotics can also reduce your potassium levels. Having low magnesium makes it more likely that you will have low potassium. Several syndromes can be associated with low potassium, such as: Cushing’s syndrome, Gitelman syndrome, Liddle syndrome, Bartter syndrome, and Fanconi syndrome. Women tend to get hypokalemia more often than men.
Hypokalemia causes weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, twitching, constipation, arrhythmias, urinary frequency, and thirst. In severe cases, muscle weakness can lead to paralysis and possibly respiratory failure.
Low potassium is associated with a risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer, digestive disorders, and infertility. For people with low potassium, doctors sometimes recommend improved diets or potassium supplements to prevent or treat some of these conditions.
Potassium is an electrolyte that you really should not supplement without the guidance of a doctor. Taking too much potassium can cause problems that often go unnoticed until they are severe. When supplementing potassium it is essential that your blood levels are regularly checked.
Because of the potential danger of taking potassium supplements, the FDA limits over-the-counter potassium supplements (including multivitamin-mineral pills) to less than 100 milligrams (mg). That’s just 2% of the 4,700 mg recommended dietary intake for potassium. You’d have to take lots of potassium supplements to get close to that amount—a great reason to get the nutrient from your diet. But if you require supplements to keep your levels adequate, the kind that will actually be helpful (600 to 800 mg) require a prescription.
That being said, there are those of us that are prescribed potassium supplements and there are things to keep in mind when taking them that can ensure they are better absorbed by your body. Make sure that you take potassium with 8-10 ounces of water. Your body needs water in order to move potassium through the body. Potassium tends to be pretty rough on the gut and often causes nausea or even vomiting. To prevent this, take the supplement with a meal or just after a meal. If you are still having nausea or vomiting when taking it with food talk to your provider about getting a smaller dose that you take more frequently as this can greatly help with the nausea and vomiting.
The tablets are huge and can be difficult to swallow and you shouldn’t crush them without talking to your pharmacist as most types of potassium are extended-release tablets which are unsafe to crush. They are also unsafe to break in half. However, potassium supplements also come as liquids, powders or granules that you can mix into food or fluids. These forms are much easier to swallow. They are also easier for you to spread out over the day if you need to. So, if you are having a hard time swallowing the huge pill or struggling with nausea or vomiting, consider asking your provider for one of these other formulations.
Potassium and Diet
Potassium is easy to get in your diet! However, that means it can be difficult to avoid if your levels are high. Everyone thinks of bananas when talking about high potassium sources, but there are many foods that have more potassium than a banana. A banana has 422mg potassium. Here are 15 foods with more than that in one serving.
- Avocados 487 mg
- Sweet potatoes 541 mg
- Spinach 540 mg
- Watermelon 640 mg
- Coconut water 600 mg
- White beans (navy beans, cannellini beans, great northern beans or lima beans) 829 mg
- Black beans 611 mg
- Edamame 676 mg
- Tomato paste 486 mg
- Butternut squash 582 mg
- Potatoes 515 mg
- Dried apricots 488 mg
- Beets 518 mg
- Pomegranates 666 mg
- Swiss Chard (the real power house) 961 mg
But there are lots of foods that have a good amount of potassium in them. High potassium fruits include: oranges, cantaloupe, honeydew, grapefruit, prunes, raisins, and dates. High potassium veggies include: broccoli, mushrooms, peas, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkin, and leafy greens. Certain dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, are high in potassium. Some fish contain potassium: Tuna, Halibut, Cod, Trout and Rockfish. Salt substitutes tend to be potassium, so they are something to watch out for too. A few other random things high in potassium: Molasses, nuts, brown rice, bran and whole wheat.
Your Primary Care Provider (PCP) really will be your best ally when managing a supplement. They will be the person that will be ordering your monitoring lab work to make sure that your supplementation is meeting your goals. They will also be the ones that will help you make sure that you are taking the right amount of the supplement. Not to mention it is most likely going to be your PCP who is helping you manage those underlying conditions that is causing you to have to take a supplement in the first place. It is also possible that your supplements could interact with medications that you are taking. Your PCP and your pharmacist are your best allies for monitoring for these possible interactions. So it is super important to keep your doctor in the loop whenever you are adding in supplements.