The mineral Potassium is an important electrolyte. Electrolytes are liquids which contain ions, positively or negatively charged atoms which conduct electrical currents. Electrolytes are vital to a number of important processes in the body, including nerve impulse conduction, muscle control, heart function, and fluid level maintenance both inside and outside the cells. Other important electrolytes include sodium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium. The body regulates intake of these important substances, and the kidneys filter out any excesses.
Potassium is so important because it allows your nerves and muscles to communicate with each other. When potassium levels are low, neuromuscular cells are not able to recharge quickly, which prevents them from firing repeatedly, and lessens their ability to function properly. Your muscles not only help you in your daily physical activities, but they are also integral to your digestive system and circulatory system as well.
What are Normal Potassium Levels?
Your body maintains normal blood potassium levels in a range from approximately 3.5 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). Hypokalemia (low potassium levels) can happen if potassium is forced inside the cells (intracellular) and the potassium levels in the blood (extracellular) drop below 3.0 mmol/L. Hypokalemia also occurs if the body is losing potassium through the loss of bodily fluids. In either situation, the amount of potassium available to other cells in the body is reduced, causing a range of symptoms.
What Causes Low Potassium Levels?
Any fluid loss from the body increases the risk of depleting potassium levels.
If you are losing fluids due to activity or illness, you may be losing potassium as well. Some medications like diuretics can also affect potassium levels. Diuretics are usually prescribed to relieve high blood pressure by increasing urination, however since potassium is excreted in the urine, increased urination can lead to excessive potassium loss. Potassium levels can also be affected by levels of other electrolytes such as magnesium and sodium. Maintaining electrolyte levels in the body is a constant balancing act.
What are Symptoms of Low Potassium Levels?
It is important to watch for early warning signs. The first signs of low potassium levels can show up as unexplained weakness or loss of energy. As potassium levels get further depleted, muscle aches and cramps can develop. Because extremely low levels of potassium can lead to cardiac electrical problems, any indication of low potassium levels should be treated seriously and should be checked by a physician right away. While the only way to know your exact extracellular blood potassium levels is through bloodwork, there are some symptoms to watch for.
1. Low Energy and Weakness
The most common early symptoms of low potassium levels is a general feeling of fatigue. This fatigue is not brought on by overexertion, but is an overall feeling of tiredness that encompasses the whole body.
2. Muscle Cramps in Lower Legs and Feet
Moderate potassium deficiency causes muscle cramping, especially in the muscles of the lower legs and feet. This is due to the inability of nerve signals to be smoothly transmitted in a timely manner to the muscle fiber cells. A quick test for low potassium involves squeezing the feet and toes tightly while contracting the muscles of the lower leg. If you experience any cramping in the calf muscle or the muscles in the arches of the feet, that can be a good indicator of diminishing potassium levels.
3. Heart Palpitations and Arrythmias
Arguably, your most important muscle is your heart. Long term or severe low potassium levels can affect the heart and cause changes in its function. If your potassium levels are too low, your heart cannot function properly, leading to heart palpitations (rapid heartbeat), arrhythmias (erratic heartbeat), or other dangerous conditions. If you experience any heart-related issues, contact a physician immediately. Do not delay!
How are Potassium Levels Tested?
The only way to know what your actual potassium level is at is to have it tested. This involves having blood drawn and getting a basic metabolic panel (BMP) or comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP), both of which test for extracellular levels of potassium and other electrolytes in the blood. A test result with a potassium value below 4.0 is in the low range and a potassium value above 5.0 is in the high range.
While being able to monitor your blood potassium levels from home would be ideal, there is currently not a way to do this effectively. A visit to your doctor for the necessary blood work will be required. If you don’t have access to regular blood work through your doctor, there are now several options available where you can order a blood test online without a doctor’s referral. Once you order the test, they will send you to a local lab to conduct the procedure. There are also independent walk-in blood testing labs, such as AnyLabTestNow or Quest Diagnostics, available in many cities. If insurance won’t cover your testing, consider a direct primary care health clinic which will have a monthly or annual plan available and can usually provide discount blood testing without insurance.
How Do I Increase Potassium Levels?
The body cannot store potassium so it requires a continuous source of potassium every day. Even if potassium levels are low, the kidneys will continue to excrete potassium, which can further complicate the situation. Therefore, if you are losing potassium through strenuous activities, sickness, or certain medications, then you need a way to replace what is being lost quickly to reduce any ill effects on the body. When you have symptoms of low potassium levels, start increasing your intake of potassium right away by eating more potassium-rich foods and including a good potassium supplement in your diet every day.
We here at Essense of Life focus on educating our customers about the value of diet and nutrition so that they are better able to take the responsibility for their health into their own hands. Our Essential Health blog and store sites provide a wide range of informative articles and research related to a variety of natural health topics that we are sure you will find very valuable in your own health quest.