As the name already suggests, potassium deficiency is a lack of potassium in the human body. Potassium is a mineral and belongs to the electrolytes in the body that are involved in maintaining the osmotic pressure in the corresponding body cells and thus also in the regulation of the water balance. The potassium value is often also determined during routine blood tests. Here the potassium concentration in the blood should be between 3.5 and 5.0 mmol/l.
What is potassium deficiency?
A blood test of potassium levels is used by the doctor to further diagnose various diseases. See AbbreviationFinder for abbreviations related to Potassium Deficiency.
In addition, potassium also plays an important role in activating enzymes such as proteins and in carbohydrate metabolism, which in turn is important for energy production. Potassium, together with calcium and sodium, also affects heart muscle activity and is responsible for the excitability of nerve and muscle cells.
Potassium is also important for blood pressure regulation. The potassium content in the body is closely related to the sodium content, because the more sodium is consumed, the more potassium the body can excrete.
Because potassium is found in many foods, most people can easily meet their potassium needs with their daily diet. However, there may be an increased need for potassium due to different conditions.
For example, a potassium deficiency can occur with malnutrition or malnutrition. Likewise, people with cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure, have a slightly higher need for potassium. People who eat a lot of salt also have an increased need for potassium.
One speaks of a potassium deficiency, the so-called hypokalemia, when the concentration of potassium in the blood is lower than 3.5 mmol/l. The causes of hypokalemia can be prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, abuse of laxatives, inflammatory bowel diseases, alcohol abuse or excessive salt consumption.
Infusions, such as blood transfusions, can also lead to an excess of potassium, known as hyperkalemia. Furthermore, an excess of potassium can occur if potassium is increasingly released from the corresponding body cells. This can be the case, for example, with infections.
Kidney disease or dehydrating medication can also lead to an excess in the blood. An excess is defined as a value above 5.5 mmol/l in the blood.
Symptoms, Ailments & Signs
Potassium is primarily responsible for the energy metabolism and the functionality of the heart and nerves. For this reason, a lack of this mineral is particularly noticeable in these areas. These are often non-specific symptoms such as tiredness and weakness, but also nervousness, which do not explicitly indicate a potassium deficiency.
Sometimes a sluggish intestine, dry skin and wound healing disorders are also symptoms that can indicate a potassium level that is too low. Since these symptoms are very unspecific, i.e. they can indicate many things, potassium deficiency is often only discovered as an incidental finding during a blood test.
Significant potassium deficiency shows up when the level has dropped to around 3 mmol/litre. Here the importance of potassium for the heart and nerves becomes clear. Symptoms that are typical of potassium deficiency are tachycardia and cardiac arrhythmias such as extrasystoles. Muscle cramps are also common. Edema, accumulation of water in the tissue, can also form.
In severe cases, hypokalemia can lead to muscle paralysis via pronounced weakness. Potassium deficiency also has an effect on consciousness, first through the cloudiness, then sometimes even the loss of consciousness. In the worst case, the coma comes at the end of the serious physical and mental impairments that potassium deficiency can cause.
With a few exceptions, the symptoms of potassium excess are similar to those of potassium deficiency. However , my excess potassium does not lead to constipation, but to diarrhea.
A potassium deficiency can cause some disorders in the body, such as muscle weakness, fatigue, headaches and dizziness, nausea, cramps, circulatory problems, mood swings and cardiac arrhythmia.
In rare cases, potassium poisoning can also occur. Poisoning can lead to a reduced heart rate, cardiac arrest, confusion and muscle weakness.
Speech and swallowing disorders can also occur. As a rule, in the case of potassium poisoning, gastric lavage is carried out with a physiological saline solution.
Appropriate infusions with sodium bicarbonate can also be used. In life-threatening cases, blood washing can even take place. Monitoring of the cardiovascular system and blood is particularly important in the event of poisoning.
Potassium serves as an electrolyte in the human organism. Potassium deficiency is accordingly an electrolyte imbalance. With such a disorder, complications that affect the heart are possible. Abnormalities in the electrocardiogram (ECG) serve as indicators for the pathological change in activity. Hypokalemia can cause abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), which can vary in severity.
The arrhythmia may be preceded by a tachycardia. This is an acceleration of the heart rate. However, the tachycardia is not always followed by an arrhythmia. Ventricular fibrillation is also a possible complication. The heart is no longer able to pump blood into the arteries as usual.
Ventricular fibrillation is life-threatening because the lack of blood supply leads to a lack of oxygen in the body. The lack of oxygen in the brain leads to unconsciousness. If the person survives, but the lack of oxygen lasts too long, permanent damage is possible. Potassium deficiency also causes neurological symptoms that can express themselves very unspecifically: tingling sensations and quantitative disturbances of consciousness up to coma are examples of this.
The electrolyte imbalance can be accompanied by water retention. Such edema causes the tissue to swell and is usually visible externally. Water retention in the legs causes the calves to become tight. Edema can cause pain from the pressure and restrict movement. As a further complication, the muscles can cramp and/or weaken.
When should you go to the doctor?
People who have been suffering from tiredness, exhaustion or concentration problems for a long time should see a doctor for a check-up. If the skin is dry, blemishes and acne, as well as dandruff formation, it is advisable to consult a doctor to clarify the cause. Signs such as loss of appetite, increased inner restlessness and nervousness should be examined and treated. If there are abnormalities in bowel activity, dizziness or headaches, a doctor’s visit is required. Irregular urination is considered unusual.
An increased amount of urine or problems with going to the toilet should therefore be checked by a doctor. Bloating and constipation are also indications that need to be examined by a doctor. Wound healing disorders are of particular concern. Since pathogens can get into the organism through open wounds, there is an increased risk of blood poisoning. Just like a severe potassium deficiency, this can lead to a fatal course of the disease. A doctor’s visit should therefore already take place at the first discrepancies.
If paralysis, cramps or muscle disorders occur, a doctor should be consulted. With a decrease in the level of physical performance, a visit to the doctor is necessary as soon as a continuous development occurs. If there is a disturbance of consciousness or a loss of consciousness, the person concerned needs medical care as soon as possible. In severe cases, an emergency service must be alerted and first aid measures initiated.
Treatment & Therapy
How a potassium deficiency is treated depends mainly on the cause of the deficiency. A slight potassium deficiency can be quickly compensated for with a potassium-rich diet. Dietary supplements in the form of capsules or effervescent tablets can only be recommended to a limited extent, as there is a risk that the potassium intake will be too high and this will result in a potassium surplus. Potassium supplements should only be taken after consultation with a doctor or pharmacist. A low dosage is usually advisable.
Drugs containing potassium are only used if, for example, a potassium deficiency is to be prevented in the event of acidification of the blood. Such an overacidification can occur, for example, in diabetes mellitus. This is called ketoacidosis and is the result of increased fat loss. Kidney stones are also treated with potassium-containing medicines.
Outlook & Forecast
If the potassium deficiency is triggered by a faulty diet, the prognosis is good. The potassium deficiency is remedied by changing the food intake and adhering to a balanced diet plan. There is a lasting relief of the symptoms as soon as the optimized nutrition plan is used in the long term. If you relapse into malnutrition or malnutrition, the symptoms reappear. If there is an addiction, for example due to heavy alcohol consumption, the underlying disease must be cured before the potassium deficiency can be alleviated. Curing the underlying disease is also necessary in the event of infection.
The prognosis becomes less favorable when there is an organic cause. In the case of kidney disease or heart disease, long-term therapy is usually necessary to achieve relief from symptoms. In addition, in many cases there is a life-threatening situation due to the existing organic disorder. There may be a need for an organ transplant. This is associated with numerous complications and adversities.
If a transplant is successful, there is a chance that the potassium deficiency will be cured. Nevertheless, the overall situation must be considered and assessed in order to make a prognosis. Eating too much salt can also lead to a potassium deficiency. The person concerned should check in what form and to what extent it is recorded and make a correction.
Older people in particular should make sure that they drink enough every day if they have a potassium deficiency, because the feeling of thirst often decreases with age. There is a risk of dehydration here, which can result in a disruption in the water and electrolyte balance. This is where the potassium and sodium balance gets mixed up. For this reason, 1.5 to 2 liters of liquid in the form of mineral water, juice spritzers, fruit and herbal teas are recommended every day.
Foods that contain a lot of potassium are primarily plant foods, such as cereals and vegetables, fruits and nuts. Fish and meat can also provide potassium, but not to the same extent as plant foods.
If the vegetables are boiled in the water for a longer period of time, the potassium is automatically transferred to the liquid. If this liquid is then not used but poured off, the potassium is automatically lost. If the potassium content is reduced for health reasons, this knowledge can be put to good use.
For example, in the case of kidney diseases, where the mineral balance is disturbed, the vegetables or potatoes are soaked in water for a very long time when preparing the meal so that the potassium can escape.
Follow-up care for a potassium deficiency consists primarily of correcting the deficiency through targeted nutrition and preventing it from reoccurring. Therefore, basic knowledge about potassium should be obtained. It is advisable to identify foods that are high in potassium in order to incorporate them into the diet. These are – among others – dried fruit, tomatoes, mushrooms, legumes, artichokes, nuts, cocoa and chocolate.
In some cases, potassium therapy with tablets is indicated. In these cases, follow-up care should consist of taking this medication regularly and as recommended. Regular blood tests are also part of the aftercare for potassium deficiency. In this way, a new defect can be counteracted preventively and it can be ensured that the defect has actually been remedied.
Since the lack of potassium can cause cardiac arrhythmias, a cardiological examination should also be part of careful follow-up care. Finally, it can be helpful to alert those around you to a history of hypokalemia so that special attention can be paid to it in an emergency. In addition, the first warning signs and indications of imminent hypokalemia should be identified so that action can be taken quickly if they occur. These can be, for example, symptoms such as arrhythmias, constipation, tiredness and frequent urination.
You can do that yourself
Potassium deficiency does not always require medical treatment. In most cases, the deficit can be compensated for by temporarily changing the diet. Foods high in potassium include legumes, cocoa, kale, nuts, potatoes, and fruit juice.
In the event of a severe deficiency, supplementary preparations from specialist shops or pharmacies can also be taken in consultation with the doctor. You should also drink plenty of mineral water or unsweetened tea. In addition, it is recommended to strengthen the circulation through regular exercise in the fresh air. The most important measure: determine and eliminate the cause of the potassium deficiency. For example, a specific drug is often responsible for the deficit. Serious illnesses are also possible triggers. It is a good idea to keep a complaint diary and to record details of the symptoms in it. This also makes the examination easier for the doctor later on.
If the symptoms persist despite all measures, a doctor’s visit is recommended. Patients with kidney or heart disease should speak to their doctor immediately if they have a potassium deficiency. This is especially true if there are other symptoms or the potassium deficiency noticeably affects well-being.