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Potassium deficiency is the result of hypokalemia—the medical term for blood serum potassium levels that are below normal. Normal blood potassium levels are typically between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A potassium level that is very low (less than 2.5 mmol/L) can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Low potassium symptoms often are mild but can include the following:
- Muscle cramps
- Intestinal paralysis, which might lead to abdominal pain
- Bloating or abdominal cramping
- Nausea or vomiting
- Feeling thirsty much of the time
- Depression or confusion
- More serious complications of hypokalemia can include abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia).
Causes of Hypokalemia and Potassium Deficiency
There are multiple potential causes of low potassium. The most common causes of hypokalemia involves potassium loss through urine due to medications typically prescribed for high blood pressure or heart disease. Such medications as water pills, diuretics, or, to a lesser extent, some antibiotics can increase urination. Vomiting, diarrhea, and excessive sweating can also lead to a potassium deficiency. This is why doctors, during a patient’s bout with the flu, will often prescribe electrolyte supplementation.
Other causes of hypokalemia include folic acid deficiency as well as certain medical conditions, including congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, diabetic ketoacidosis, and primary aldosteronism. Lifestyle factors, such as excessive alcohol use, excessive exercising, or excessive laxative use (common in eating disorders) are also linked to low potassium.
It’s important to get enough potassium in your diet; however, there isn’t scientific evidence to support the notion that low dietary intake of potassium directly results in hypokalemia.
WHAT YOU CAN DOSAMPLE POTASSIUM-RICH MEALS
Here’s a quick sampling of potassium-rich meals.
- Spinach, mushroom, and artichoke omelet with prune juice
- Homemade banana pancakes (see recipe below)
- Lima bean and lentil soup (see recipe below)
- Pasta made with fresh, homemade tomato sauce
- Baked halibut with 1 medium baked potato
- Flounder fish tacos with acorn squash soup
(Note: it is not necessary to eat fish daily!)
- 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped with low-fat yogurt
- 1/2 cup prunes
- Homemade trail mix with almonds, sunflower seeds, and raisins
- Chopped broccoli with spinach dip
- Baked or dehydrated sweet potato chips
- Orange and avocado salad
Why Is Potassium So Important to Our Health?
Potassium is a vital mineral and electrolyte. Electrolytes have important jobs within the body—they help carry much-needed electrical signals to your cells, and in turn they help regulate your nerve and muscle functioning, hydration, and blood pressure. Electrolytes also help to rebuild damaged tissue. Potassium is involved in your heart’s ability to beat and to squeeze blood through your body.
In addition, potassium helps to regulate your blood pressure. It also helps your muscles and nerves to work properly.
Potassium deficiency can be even more complicated than we think. According to a report at Oregon State University‘s website, “The relative deficiency of dietary potassium in the modern diet may play a role in the pathology of some chronic diseases”—stroke, osteoporosis, and kidney stones, for example.
Typically, potassium deficiency symptoms are discovered by blood tests conducted for other reasons—an illness, for example, or to monitor your blood while you’re on various medications. If you’re in good health, you won’t usually feel the symptoms of hypokalemia; it’s rare for low potassium levels to cause individuals to experience isolated symptoms.
Reach for Potassium-Rich Foods
According to the USDA, adults need 4,700 mg of potassium per day to meet adequate intake (AI) requirements. You can achieve this goal and realize the benefits of potassium by eating your fruits and veggies.
Plant-based sources of potassium include banana, broccoli, lentils, squash, and sweet potato. Other foods that serve as rich sources of potassium include fish (particularly flounder or halibut) and low-fat dairy products. Consult with your doctor about whether potassium-rich foods and/or potassium supplementation is right for you.
How much potassium is in various food sources? Here’s a selective list, per Oregon State University:
- 1 medium potato, baked with skin, 926 mg
- 1/2 cup plums, dried (prunes), 637 mg
- 1/2 cup raisins, 598 mg
- 6 fluid ounces prune juice, 528 mg
- 1/2 cup lima beans, cooked, 485 mg
- 1/2 cup acorn squash, cooked, 448 mg
RECIPE 1BANANA PANCAKES
1 medium ripe banana
2 large grass-fed eggs
1/8 teaspoon baking powder (for fluffy pancakes)
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
1 tablespoon pure honey
Butter or olive oil for frying
1. In a large bowl, mash the banana until there are no big lumps.
Add all remaining ingredients to the bowl, except the eggs. Whisk ingredients to combine.
2. Whisk the eggs well in a small bowl. Pour the whisked eggs into the large bowl of ingredients and stir until all ingredients are well combined.
3. In a griddle or skillet over medium heat, melt a little butter or olive oil.
4. Drop 2 tablespoons of batter onto the griddle/skillet for each pancake. Cook for about 1 minute, until the bottoms look golden.
5. Flip each pancake when you see bubbling in the center and cook for another minute.
6. Serve warm. Serve with fresh fruit and desired toppings.
Servings: 8 small pancakes
RECIPE 2LIMA-BEAN AND LENTIL SOUP
1 tablespoon olive oil or ghee
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 leek, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup dry lima beans
1/2 cup dry lentils
1 small carrot, thinly sliced
1 small parsnip, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk with leaves (1/2 cup), thinly sliced
1 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat oil or ghee over medium heat in a medium frying pan. Sauté onion and leek and garlic for 5 to 10 minutes, until onions are tender, and set aside.
2. Bring vegetable broth and water to a boil in a medium saucepan.
3. Add lima beans, cooked onion, leek and garlic, carrot, parsnip, celery, Italian seasoning, cumin, salt, and pepper.
4. Once saucepan has reached a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, covered. If beans and lentils are not tender, cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until tender.
5. Turn off heat, remove soup from heat, and allow it to stand for 20 minutes, covered.