Potassium is a mineral that is needed by the major organs of the body including the heart and, kidneys. If you are eating a balanced diet with fresh and dried fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts, you may be naturally getting enough potassium. However, there are factors that can cause low potassium levels in the body.
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These include certain medications, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, muscle cramps, physically demanding jobs, athletic activity, smoking, alcohol or drug use, and eating disorders. Symptoms of low potassium include constipation, nausea, lightheadedness excessive urination, numbness and tingling. Very low levels of potassium can cause serious complications such as irregular heartbeat or coma, which may necessitate emergency care. There are many chronic diseases that have been associated with low potassium including heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer, digestive disorders and infertility. A simple laboratory test can be used to check your potassium level.
Common medications that are associated with lowering potassium are diuretics or “water pills”. These are often prescribed for individuals with hypertension to reduce body fluids and lower the strain on the heart. Diuretics may be given alone or in combination with other hypertensive medications. Diuretics cause increased amounts of potassium to be excreted in the urine, which increases the risk for low potassium. If you are taking a diuretic or taking a combination blood pressure medication that contains a diuretic, your physician may suggest a potassium supplement to replace the lost potassium.
Some research suggests that the levels of potassium may be protective for healthy blood pressure. The Dallas Heart Study evaluated over three thousand individuals and found that African Americans as compared to other ethnic groups in the study, had the highest blood pressure and lowest potassium levels. While the study attributed this in part to dietary preferences, more research is needed on the relationship between potassium and blood pressure.
Potassium is found in many foods including bananas, avocados, citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, nuts and potatoes. It is important to know that some forms of cooking including boiling can remove the potassium from foods. If potassium supplements are needed, it is important to know there are different types available. Potassium supplements include potassium citrate and potassium chloride. These come in a variety of formulations including liquid, tablets, powder or effervescent tablets. It is essential to take these with a full glass of water or juice. The only reported side effects are nausea and rare allergies. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggests an average supplementary dose for adults 18 years and older is 4,700 mg/potassium daily. However, there are certain individuals that should not take potassium supplements before checking with their physician including those with kidney disease, heart disease, Addison’s disease or stomach ulcers.
Potassium is balanced in part by the kidneys, which remove excess potassium that the body does not need through the urine. If you have chronic kidney problems or have medications that interact with potassium, it is important to talk with your doctor before taking supplements. Serious signs of potassium overdose include confusion, tingling in the limbs, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, weakness and coma. These require immediate emergency care.
Potassium is a vital mineral for proper organ function. A balanced and healthy diet including fresh fruits and vegetables is essential but there are situations in which supplements may be beneficial. Due to the serious risks associated with an imbalance of potassium, it is important to work with your physician to assess your current medications and medical condition before deciding to take potassium supplements.
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