The elderly are the most susceptible group, with a higher incidence of potassium deficiency than the general population. Why are they more prone to have potassium deficiency? Potassium is an essential mineral found in abundance in many fruits and vegetables, but often its deficiency is not linked to low potassium intake. Instead, it is associated with other conditions such as malabsorption or digestive disorder like Crohn’s disease which affect the absorption of this mineral and others.
Hydration status and some medications may also affect potassium levels in the blood. Diuretics, which removes excess water from the body, may cause potassium deficiency as well. These situations make the person more prone to be potassium deficient, and they are all gathered in the elderly because the older they get, the more infectious and chronic diseases they get, and they will need more medication.
But again, potassium can be a very sensitive mineral, because when levels are too high or too low, it can affect our heart. Thus, it is essential to talk to your physician if there are any symptoms of potassium deficiency. As mentioned, potassium is in a lot of food, especially in bananas, citrus juices, beans and legumes.
What does potassium do and what benefit does it have?
Potassium provides many benefits to the body, and its function is based on opposing the action of sodium. To keep the body healthy, both minerals should be balanced.
It has an essential role in carbohydrate metabolism as it converts glucose to glycogen to be stored in the muscle as an energy reservoir. It has a significant role in building proteins out of amino acids as well, so the body can use them as a secondary source of energy.
Protects the cells
Increasing water content inside the cells may cause cell death because of high levels of sodium. Potassium opposes this mechanism and expels the sodium out of the cells and into the blood, which draws water out along with sodium.
Maintains Normal blood pressure
Potassium competes with sodium resorption in the kidney. Increasing potassium-rich food in your diet will increase its levels in the blood, leading to sodium excretion in the urine along with the water. This will be helpful to lower blood pressure.
Supports bone health
Loss of bone minerals may result from an increase in the acidity of the blood. This mechanism can be solved with potassium because it helps neutralize the blood pH, protecting bone mass and preventing its loss.
Strengthens muscle contraction
Muscle contraction is affected by many factors and minerals, and potassium is one of them. Potassium stimulates muscle contraction by stimulating mineral influx into the muscles to induce contraction, which includes calcium. It also helps to conduct nerve impulses to the muscles, which is required for muscle contraction.
Protects the heart
The heart is considered a muscle, and as such, potassium supports its contraction and prevents the overload of this vital organ by maintaining the blood pressure at a healthy level.
Studies show that diabetes is correlated to low potassium levels.
Elevates mood and brain functions
Potassium has an essential role in the transmission of nerve impulses by secreting chemical substances such as dopamine and serotonin. They are responsible for controlling our mood and other brain functions.
Where can I get potassium from?
- Potassium is an essential mineral that is found in abundant food sources like fruit, vegetables, beans, and legumes.
- Fruits rich in potassium such as banana, raisins, apricots, figs, kiwi, mango, nectarine, papaya, peach, rhubarb, pistachios, and pomegranate.
- Vegetables rich in potassium include tomato, prunes, orange, asparagus, artichoke, beet greens, collard greens, turnip greens, pumpkin, sweet potato, white mushroom, okra, green peppers, avocado, spinach, and potato.
- Dairy products rich in potassium include milk, yogurt, and buttermilk.
- Bean and legumes rich in potassium such as white beans, Lima beans, and soybeans.
- Other sources rich in potassium include sunflower seeds, cocoa, molasses, and clams.
Here are some of the highest potassium sources and the amount of potassium in 100 grams of each source:
- Beet greens: 1309 mg, 28% of daily potassium intake
- Salmon: 1068 mg, 23% of daily potassium intake
- Large white beans: 1004 mg, 21% of daily potassium intake
- Avocados: 975 mg, 21% of daily potassium intake
- Potatoes: 926 mg, 20% of daily potassium intake
- Acorn squash: 896 mg, 19% of daily potassium intake
- Milk: 732 mg, 16% of daily potassium intake
- White button mushroom: 555 mg, 12% of daily potassium intake
- Bananas: 537 mg, 11% of daily potassium intake
- Tomato: 523 mg, 11% of daily potassium intake
How do our bodies absorb potassium?
The body absorbs almost all of the ingested potassium, and any excess amount it excreted in the urine.
Here are some factors that may enhance or reduce potassium absorption:
- Insulin: Insulin has an important role in preventing potassium loss in urine, helps with its influx inside the cells, and stimulates potassium absorption from the intestine.
- Alcohol and coffee: They act as a diuretic and will cause a loss of potassium in urine. Alcohol damages digestive system lining, which causes malabsorption of potassium.
- Raw food: Cooking or blanching vegetables causes potassium loss in the blanching or cooking water. It is better to consume potassium-rich food raw to maintain their nutritional value.
How much potassium do I need daily?
Daily recommendations of potassium differ according to age, sex, daily activity, the person’s status of health, metabolic, and medical conditions. But, the recommended potassium amount according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is:
- From birth to 6 months: 400 mg
- Infants from 7 to 12 months: 860 mg
- Children from 1 to 3 years: 2000 mg
- Children from 4 to 8 years: 2300 mg
- Boys from 9 to 13 years: 2500 mg
- Girls from 9 to 13 years: 2300 mg
- Teen boys from 14 to 18 years: 3000 mg
- Teen girls from 14 to 18 years: 2300 mg
- Male adult from 19 to 50 years: 3400 mg
- Female adult from 19 to 50 years: 2600 mg
- Pregnant teens from 14 to 18: 2600 mg
- Pregnant women from 19 to 50: 2900 mg
- Breastfeeding teens from 14 to 18: 2500 mg
- Breastfeeding women from 19 to 50: 2800 mg
- Male seniors from 51 years and older: 3400 mg
- Female seniors from 51 years and older: 2600 mg
People at risk of potassium deficiency may need more than the daily potassium recommendation.
Who is at risk of potassium deficiency?
Low potassium intake
Low potassium intake is not considering an important cause for potassium deficiency but can be happened in case of severe food deprivation like homeless people.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women are at higher risk because the nutritional demand of the infant increases potassium requirements, and may cause potassium deficiency when this is not prevented with supplements or by increasing potassium intake in food. In the first trimesters of pregnancy, there is an increase in vomiting prevalence, which may be another cause of potassium deficiency in cases of severe vomiting symptoms.
Malabsorption and digestive system diseases
Patients with an intestinal disease that decreases potassium absorption such as celiac and Crohn’s diseases should consider potassium supplements, and these conditions must be treated to avoid potassium deficiency.
Diarrhea increases potassium loss in the stools and also interferes with its absorption.
In chronic alcohol consumption, there is an increase in potassium execration in the urine. The downside of regular alcohol intake is chronic damage to the digestive system epithelium, leading to malabsorption of many nutrients, which includes potassium.
It causes a sudden drop in potassium levels, giving rise to acute potassium deficiency. This should be treated by increasing fluid intake, especially alkaline water, as it contains a good amount of potassium and other minerals that should be replenished in this condition.
It is an overlooked cause of potassium deficiency as decreasing magnesium levels in blood stimulates potassium efflux from the cells and increases its excretion in the urine.
Certain medications such as diuretics and laxatives may cause excessive potassium loss in the stool and urine.
Patients with kidney diseases are at high risk of developing potassium deficiency because the kidneys are the organs responsible for electrolyte regulation and balance in blood.
It is a hormone responsible for electrolyte regulation which includes sodium, potassium, and chloride. Aldosterone hormone stimulates the execration of potassium in the urine, but in a healthy body, other hormones oppose this action and keep the electrolyte levels balanced. When aldosterone levels increase above their normal levels that will cause potassium deficiency.
Type 2 diabetes is associated with a low insulin level and insulin resistance. Low insulin levels will cause a decrease in potassium influx inside the cells and affect their normal functions.
When do you consider potassium deficiency?
Normal potassium levels range between 3.5 to 5.0 milliequivalent’s Per Liter (mEq/L). If the test results are lower than 3.5 mEq/L, it is enough to diagnose a potassium deficiency. Before a potassium blood test, fasting is recommended, and potassium supplements or potassium-rich food should be avoided 6 hours before the test. Medication that affects potassium levels such as diuretics such be stopped in advance to accurately measure for potassium levels.
Potassium deficiency symptoms
Potassium is responsible for calcium influx inside muscle cells, directly affecting muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles. With potassium deficiency, both nerve impulses and mineral flow into the cells will decrease, giving rise to muscle aches and spasms.
Weakness and fatigue
This can happen as a result of decreased protein and glucagon in the muscles because potassium is responsible for converting glucose and amino acids to glucagon and protein. A reduction in the hormone that controls energy sources will cause symptoms of fatigue and weakness.
Potassium has a significant role in regulating the blood PH. Potassium deficiency can cause increasing or decreasing blood PH, and that will alkalize or acidify the blood. This will ultimately affect the breathing process, giving rise to breathing difficulties.
Constipation has a lot of causes, and potassium deficiency can be an important explanation, especially in older adults. Downregulation of digestive system muscles will cause constipation as a part of the effect of potassium deficiency on the smooth muscle. Potassium deficiency combined with an unhealthy diet low in fiber is likely to increase constipation symptoms.
High blood pressure
Lower levels of potassium in the blood will give sodium the upper hand in regulating blood pressure, which causes high blood pressure. This condition usually linked to unhealthy diets and low fruits and vegetable intake which have high amounts of sodium.
That is because when potassium levels drop, inadequate secretion of chemical transmission in the brain will occur, leading to mood swings and personality changes.
Loss of bone minerals as a part of potassium deficiency is linked to osteoporosis in older adults.
How to maintain potassium at a healthy level and prevent potassium deficiency?
- Eat food that is rich in potassium, for example fresh fruit and vegetables, including banana, raisins, apricots, figs, kiwi, mango, nectarine, papaya, peach, rhubarb, pistachios, pomegranate, tomato, prunes, orange, asparagus, artichoke, beet greens, collard greens, turnip greens, pumpkin, sweet potato, white mushroom, okra, green peppers, avocado, spinach, potato, milk, yogurt and buttermilk, white beans, lima beans, sunflower seeds, cocoa, molasses and clams.
- Treat medical conditions that affect potassium absorption and excretion.
- Use potassium supplements with people at a higher risk of potassium deficiency as in patients treated with dialysis and diabetics.
- Avoid alcohol consumption and try to drink fruit juices and alkaline water instead of alcohol as they are additional sources of potassium.
- Talk to your doctor if you have a family history of osteoporosis.
How can you treat a potassium deficiency?
- You should increase potassium levels in the blood by working on the same points as in the prevention of potassium deficiency. You can ask your doctor as he may recommend potassium supplements to increase its levels. Potassium supplements are available over the counter, and for most adults the recommended daily allowance is 3400 mg in male adults and 2600 in female adults.
- Always ask your doctor before taking supplements, even if it is available over the counter. Potassium supplements can cause toxicity and should be closely monitored.
- Potassium supplements may cause stomach upset, nausea, and vomiting.
- It is better to increase potassium levels by food intake because it will never cause potassium toxicity, unlike supplements.