Are you feeling weak and tired all the time? Do your arms or legs cramp up, sometimes to the point of paralysis? Do you sometimes experience tingling or numb sensations?
If you answered yes to all these questions, you may be suffering from low potassium. As I mentioned in a previous article, potassium is an important electrolyte that carries electrical signals to cells in your body. It plays a key role in nerve and muscle function, including the heart muscle. Low potassium levels, also known as hyperkalemia, can wreak havoc in your body.
Low Potassium: Causes
The most common cause of low potassium is taking water pills or diuretics. These medications increase urine output, which causes a significant amount of potassium loss. Ironically, diuretics are often prescribed for high blood pressure or heart disease. However, when the body loses too much potassium, it can put a huge strain on the heart—directly impacting blood pressure levels.
Vomiting and/or diarrhea can also cause potassium loss from the digestive tract. More uncommonly, hyperkalemia could come from getting insufficient potassium in your diet. Other less common causes include alcohol abuse, chronic kidney disease, excessive sweating, folic acid deficiency, and certain diabetes complications.
Low Potassium: Treatment
Most of the time, the symptoms caused by low potassium don’t happen without an accompanying illness. Many people only find out they have low potassium after taking a blood test due to other medical conditions. However, it’s important to treat low potassium right away. Since too little of it can affect the heart and cause abnormal heart beat, don’t let your levels get too low.
If your blood work comes back with low potassium levels, make sure to see your doctor to discuss your options. Your doctor may determine it’s caused by the medication you’re taking, and recommend you switch to a different drug. Or you may need to treat an underlying medical condition that’s causing your low potassium.
There are potassium supplements that may help your overall levels, but your doctor must make that decision. Having too much potassium in your blood can also affect your heart, so you should only take potassium supplements with your doctor’s guidance.
It’s usually okay to eat foods high in potassium, since food is the best way for your body to absorb vitamins and minerals. Here are the foods you may want to eat more of if you have low potassium levels: