Potassium is one of the many trace elements that the body requires in order for it to continue functioning correctly. This element plays a vital role in maintaining the balance of fluids in the body, as it is one of the substances that is found dissolved in the blood. These are often called ions or electrolytes, and there are many different ones that are required. The potassium in the body also helps to ensure that the muscles are able to contract and relax properly, and also plays a role in the transmission of nerve impulses through the neurones. If the level of potassium in your blood is too low, this can result in a condition called hypokalaemia, which is commonly called potassium deficiency.
Symptoms of potassium deficiency include:
- Weakness or cramping in the muscles. This may be a mild loss of function or it may be severe enough to prevent the muscle from moving at all. It will depend on the levels of potassium that are present in the blood.
- Numbness or paraesthesia. Numbness or the loss of feeling in certain parts of the body can result from the levels of potassium being too low to transmit nerve impulses to and from those areas. Paraesthesia is the medical term for pins and needles, which is a relatively common indication of hypokalaemia.
- Nausea and vomiting can be extremely common symptoms of dietary deficiencies, and potassium is no exception to this.
- Palpitations. These are changes to the regular beat of the heart that could potentially be dangerous. This occurs because potassium is needed for both muscle contraction (which needs to occur regularly in the heart muscle) and the transmission of the nerve impulses that cause the contractions to occur.
- Changes to the digestive system, such as the onset of constipation or a feeling of being bloated. There may also be a sudden increase in the amount of urine being produced, which could lead to the onset of dehydration if the fluid intake is not high enough to compensate for this.
If you think that you may have developed a potassium deficiency, then you should speak to your doctor for advice, as you may be asked to make some changes to your diet. There are a number of foods that are extremely rich in potassium, and if you have been diagnosed with hypokalaemia, then you should aim to increase your intake of these substances. Foods that are rich in potassium include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables. These include curly kale, spinach, and a wide variety of other leafy vegetables. As well as being rich in potassium, these also contain a wide range of other nutrients that will help to maintain the balance of electrolytes in the blood.
- Baked potatoes with the skin. Many of the nutrients in potatoes are found in or just beneath the skin. However, the majority of people do not eat this part of the potato, and therefore do not receive the benefits associated with it. If, however, you are trying to boost your intake of potassium, then it is highly advisable for you to start eating the skins of your potatoes. However, if you have diabetes mellitus, then you will need to restrict your intake of carbohydrates, including potatoes. This does not mean that you need to avoid them completely.
- Salmon and other oily fish. Oily fish are an excellent source of a wide range of nutrients, of which potassium is just one. You should aim to include a portion of salmon, mackerel, tuna or one of the other varieties in your diet at least once a week in order to obtain the benefits.
- Bananas. Perhaps the most famous of the high potassium foods, bananas contain large amounts of this nutrient and will definitely help to increase your levels of potassium when eaten on a regular basis.
The majority of fruits and vegetables also contain some potassium, although not in such large amounts. Eating a varied diet will mean that you receive a large number of different nutrients, including potassium. This is the best way to ensure that you do not develop any dietary deficiencies.
You should speak to your doctor before you make any drastic changes to your diet, which could upset the careful balance of ions and nutrients in your blood. Having a level of potassium that is too high is a condition called hyperkalaemia, and this can be very dangerous if left untreated. Potassium levels (and those of the other electrolytes) are regulated by the kidneys, and if the levels are too high, it could potentially lead to kidney damage. It can also lead to many of the same symptoms as low potassium, which is why it is so important to seek medical advice before you start to make changes.