While potassium doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other minerals and vitamins, it is incredibly important. For example, you need it for a healthy heart, proper muscle function and stable blood pressure. When potassium reserves are too low, the resulting condition is called hypokalemia. It’s commonly caused by certain drugs (e.g. diuretics), dehydration and repeated episodes of diarrhea, though occasionally the problem is triggered by a lack of potassium in the diet. Regardless of the cause, hypokalemia can have significant consequences for your well-being. Here are ten signs that you should ask your doctor to consider testing you for potassium deficiency.
1. Heart palpitations
One of the most frightening symptoms associated with a potassium deficiency, heart palpitations can take a variety of forms. Your heart might race, you may complain of a fluttering sensation in your chest, or it may actually feel like your heart is skipping beats. These brief episodes are common and mostly harmless, but rhythm disturbances caused by hypokalemia may be very uncomfortable. Any unexplained palpitations should always be evaluated, preferably with a 24-48 hour recording of the heart rhythm.
2. Muscle cramping, weakness and pain
Since potassium plays a vital role in keeping your muscles working properly, many people with hypokalemia suffer from painful cramps in their arms or legs. The worse the deficiency, the more likely these cramps are to cause weakness in the muscles (which can even lead to a paralysis-like sensation in severe cases). Meanwhile, it’s typical to experience muscle pain as well, because low potassium levels damage muscle cells. Your muscles may ache or feel tender to touch, even when you haven’t engaged in strenuous exercise.
3. Digestive disturbances
Potassium deficiency upsets your digestive function, leading to a wide range of problems that can easily be mistaken for the less serious symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For example, you may feel or look bloated, and you might experience painful abdominal cramps. In addition, because low levels of potassium cause bodily functions to become sluggish, you may find you’re constipated more often than not.
When you experience sensations that aren’t caused by external stimuli, this unnerving experience is called paresthesia. If you are deficient in potassium, paresthesia is most likely to manifest as tingling or numbness in your extremities, but some people describe buzzing or creeping sensations. Note, however, that paresthesia can also be a hallmark of neurological disorders and nerve dysfunctions, so if it’s your only symptom of potassium deficiency then you may be better off seeing a neurologist.
5. Changes in fluid regulation
Potassium deficiency can sometimes be initially misdiagnosed as diabetes (until tests are ordered), because both conditions cause increased urination and also strong feelings of thirst. If your doctor suspects diabetes on the grounds of these symptoms and then reassures you after your glucose tests come back looking normal, be sure to mention the possibility that it may have been potassium deficiency that was causing your symptoms all along.
It’s common for low potassium levels to induce nausea. However, this can progress to vomiting if you’re particularly deficient in potassium. Vomiting only worsens the situation, as it causes you to lose even more potassium. Try sipping peppermint or ginger tea for a natural treatment that can alleviate nausea.
Given that adequate potassium levels are necessary for keeping blood pressure within healthy limits, it is perhaps unsurprising that a deficit of potassium can cause fainting. Even if you don’t pass out, your low blood pressure may leave you feeling dizzy, lightheaded or unsteady on your feet. As well as influencing your blood pressure, low potassium can make your heartrate so slow that reduced oxygen supply also makes you feel faint.