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Potassium Deficiency Symptoms and Diet Sources (Foods to Eat)

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The body is constantly maintaining a balance of the potassium levels by the intake of potassium in food and drink and the output via the urine. A deficiency of potassium is one of the most common electrolyte abnormalities that is almost always due to a greater loss of potassium rather than a lower than required intake. If it is a very minor deficiency then it causes no symptoms (asymptomatic) but the potassium levels have to be maintained within a narrow range to allow for optimal functioning of the body. Low potassium levels in the blood is known as hypokalemia and may be graded as mild, moderate or severe. Mild hypokalemia is a potassium level less than 3.6 mmol/L, moderate is a level between 2.5 to 3.0 mmol/L and severe hypokalemia is a blood potassium level less than 2.5 mmol/L.

Signs and Symptoms of a Potassium Deficiency

The symptoms of a potassium deficiency may not be clearly evident to the average person. It is more likely to arise in the elderly for a number of reasons and geriatricians are aware of the risk. Therefore certain clinical features that may be detected by a geriatrician may raise the concern about a potassium deficiency and warrant further investigation like testing the potassium levels of the blood. A potassium deficiency may cause one or more of the following :

  • Arrhythmia – irregular heart beat.
  • ECG abnormalities.

The above clinical signs may at most be experienced as dizziness and palpitations by a patient. Other symptoms of a potassium deficiency which are evident to the patient and caregivers may include :

  • Muscle weakness which can sometimes be severe to the extent that muscles are barely able to function as if paralyzed.
  • Muscle spasms and twitching particularly in the hands and feet.
  • Abnormal sensations like tingling and “pins and needles” in the hands and feet.
  • Frequent urination and passing of large volumes of urine per day.
  • Abdominal and gastrointestinal symptoms like constipation, bloating, fullness and cramping.
  • Lethargy.
  • Mental confusion.

If there is significant muscle pain with weakness, tenderness and swelling over muscular areas and passing of a dark brown urine, then this may be the sign of muscle breakdown (rhabdomyolysis). This is a very serious complication and needs immediate medical attention. Sometime most of the muscle symptoms of rhabdomyolysis are absent apart from the changes in the urine color.

Diet for Potassium Deficiency

Low potassium levels are rarely due to a potassium-deficient diet. However, maintaining a diet abundant in potassium for a person who is at risk may greatly reduce the impact should any deficiency arise. Certain foods are considered to be high in potassium and this includes :

  • Avocado
  • Bran cereal
  • Dried fruits like dates, figs and prunes
  • Fresh fruit like bananas, kiwis, oranges and mangos
  • Lima beans
  • Nuts
  • Meat, particularly red meat – beef, lamb and pork
  • Molasses
  • Vegetables like beet, broccoli, carrots, spinach and tomatoes
  • Wheat germ

Dried figs and molasses is considered to be the best sources of potassium as it contains more than 1,000mg of potassium for every 100g portion that is consumed. Adequate intake of potassium to maintain health is about 4,700mg per day for an adult but this cannot always be achieved by diet alone. This is more significant in the elderly who have small appetites and tend to prefer a tea and toast diet. Instead supplementation should be considered alongside dietary change in a person with potassium deficiency.

Potassium supplements may be available as control-release tablets, encapsulated granules, effervescent tablets or elixirs. There are pros and cons to each type of supplement in terms of price, taste preference and convenience and the most appropriate supplement should be decided upon by the geriatric specialist and pharmacist along with input by the patient.


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