"Potassium is essential for the communication between cells and nerve connections; this is important for muscle contractions and kidney function," says Taub-Dix. "Some folks don't realize just how important potassium is for the body and how much they need. People are familiar with sodium, protein, vitamin C, even antioxidants, for instance, but many are not as familiar with potassium." This is why, according to Taub-Dix, many foods are starting to list potassium on their packaging.
“Potassium is part of every cell in the body," says Kaustubh Dabhadkar, MD, MPH, MBA, FACC, a North Carolina-based cardiologist with a specialization in preventative care. "It is necessary for proper functioning of muscles and nerves; low potassium levels hamper muscle and nerve functioning."
Clearly, getting enough potassium is super important for maintaining your heart health, muscles contractions, and even neurological function. "And while most Americans could stand to get more potassium into their diets, keep in mind that it's far easier to lose potassium when you exercise because it's closely related to hydration levels," adds Taub-Dix. This is even more true when spending time outdoors in warm weather.
Here are some signs your body is telling you you need more potassium to keep an eye out for this summer (and all year-round), according to Taub-Dix and Dr. Dabhadkar.
5 low potassium symptoms to keep an eye out for, according to an RD and a cardiologist
1. You've got a headache, dry mouth, or are generally super thirsty
"If you've been working out, exercising, or sweating in the sun, it's possible you need to re-up on potassium," says Taub-Dix. The U.S. National Library of Medicine states that slight drops in potassium may have specific symptoms that might resemble dehydration (think thirst, dry mouth, and headache), however, non-severe drops in potassium can manifest differently depending on the person.
2. Your heart feels like it skips a beat or you experience palpitations
"You may have an irregular heartbeat or palpitation because potassium has to do with how muscles function," says Taub-Dix. "If you ever feel a funny heart sensation, it may be the result of low potassium." As for most matters of heart health, if you experience sharp pains, arm pain, or any other acute heart-related symptoms, it's best to seek emergency medical care as soon as possible.
“Low potassium levels can induce additional heart beats, which can lead to palpitations,” says Dr. Dabhadkar. “Additionally, potassium helps relax blood vessels and thus, low potassium level causes high blood pressure in the long term.”
3. You’re having muscle spasms or cramps
"Cramps, muscle weakness, and muscle spasms are a telltale sign of low potassium," says Taub-Dix. That charlie horse that wakes you up in the middle of the night or the back spasm that throws you out of commission when you lean to pick up a sock could be a sign that you need more potassium. This is because, according to Taub-Dix, when your muscle cells don’t have enough of this mineral, they don’t facilitate your muscle’s “push and pull” as easily as they would when they have enough potassium.
4. You’re experiencing constipation
Believe it or not, this muscular impact of low potassium is also why low potassium can also cause constipation. “With low potassium levels, the small muscle in intestine doesn't contract appropriately,” says Dr. Dabhadkar. Having enough of this mineral allows your digestive system to squeeze and release—which is how it moves stool from your stomach, through your body, and out.
Keep in mind that severe calcium deficiency can lead to a condition known as hypokalemia, however this is very unusual among healthy folks with normal kidney functioning and is rarely caused by low dietary potassium intake alone. Hypokalemia is typically caused of the use of diuretics and other medications, but it can result from diarrhea due to potassium losses in the stool.
5. You feel fatigued or weaker than usual
According to Taub-Dix, general malaise can also be tied to low potassium levels. “In absence of adequate potassium, large muscles fail to contract optimally,” says Dr. Dabhadkar. This means that when you’re low on potassium, your muscles can’t work as effectively as they normally would which can leave you feeling weaker than usual.
What to do if you're experiencing any of these low potassium symptoms
If you're feeling fatigued or not quite like yourself, the first step is to see a healthcare provider before trying to diagnose yourself with potassium deficiency. That being said, it's always a good idea to fit more electrolytes and potassium-rich foods into your diet.
“I really recommend trying to get your potassium from food, rather than one supplement of potassium, because you can get a bunch of nutrients at once from foods,” says Taub-Dix. This is particularly useful for a nutrient like potassium that needs other minerals to do its job.
The good news is that there are so many delicious sources of potassium to choose from. "Potatoes, cooked spinach, carrots, avocadoes, milk, peas, beans, peanut butter, salmon, cooked lean beef, and seaweed are all excellent sources of potassium. Believe it or not, a baked potato has about twice the potassium content as a banana," Taub-Dix says. The more you know!
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