As I caution my patients, with all the heat and humidity during the summer, it’s easy for people to become dehydrated and crucial minerals like potassium and sodium to become dangerously out of balance. It’s important to keep the right balance of these two minerals to maintain good energy, muscle and nerve function. Let me explain.
Potassium – The Energy Mineral
Potassium is one of the electrolytes – a set of minerals in your body (sodium, magnesium, chloride, calcium) that have the ability to conduct electricity throughout your body and help regulate energy. Potassium is helps many important functions in your body like:
- Smooth muscle contraction: Potassium helps regulates normal smooth muscle functions of your heart, movement of your body, and movement of your intestines.
- Regulates nerve impulses: Help maintain pathways from nerves to brain.
- Blood pressure: Low levels of potassium can create higher blood pressure.
- Prevent stroke: Research has shown that people who have low potassium levels are at greater risk for stroke, likely because their blood pressure is also higher.
Things That Cause Too High Potassium
Unless you take potassium supplements, and/or other medications, that may cause you to have too high potassium levels, most people generally do not get hyperkalemia – too high potassium. However, here are some things that can cause potassium to go too high:
- NSAIDs – over the counter and prescription pain relievers.
- ACE inhibitors – high blood pressure drugs.
- Heparin – blood clot prevention.
- Sulfa based antibiotics – like Bactrim, Septra, trimethoprim sulfa.
Symptoms of Low Potassium
When we sweat too much and do not replace that fluid loss by drinking enough water, or have kidney function problems, or have been sick with vomiting and/or diarrhea, or have poor intestinal absorption of minerals that can occur in such conditions as irritable bowel syndrome and/or Crohn disease, we can get low potassium levels from dehydration.
Living in high heat and humidity, sweating excessively and not replacing fluids adequately, or just getting too much salt in your diet can throw off the balance of potassium, causing you to need more of it. Other things that can decrease potassium levels include:
- Diuretics used to treat high blood pressure.
- Fluconazole, theophylline (asthma).
- Bowel conditions like IBD, or Crohn’s, which cause frequent bowel movements.
- Excessive sweating, whether through exercise or work activity.
The following symptoms are often associated with too low potassium:
- Muscle cramps, especially of the legs and feet.
- Fatigue, lack of energy.
- Stomach upsets.
- Irregular heartbeats.
How Much Potassium Do You Need?
Generally, a healthy adult needs between 2,000-4,000 mg of potassium a day to prevent shortages and symptoms. If you are getting optimal levels of nutrition through eating a healthy diet and taking a good multivitamin/mineral supplement, you should not have a problem maintaining potassium levels. Potassium balances itself correctly along with sodium and magnesium, two fellow electrolytes, so it is important to keep these 3 minerals in balance. Here’s how:
- Eat a Potassium rich diet: Bananas, potatoes, orange juice, V-8 juice, milk, avocadoes, cantaloupe, tomatoes, lima beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas, chicken, fish.
- Take A Good Multivitamin/Mineral: For insurance of maintaining healthy potassium (and other electrolyte) levels, a good multivitamin/mineral with optimal levels of vitamins and minerals is crucial.
- Potassium supplements: If necessary, you may need to take a potassium supplement every day. However, you should only do this on the advice of your doctor.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking adequate fluids, especially in high heat and humidity and exercising, whenever you are sweating, can prevent you from going out of potassium balance. This can be pure water or electrolyte added waters.
Making sure you have the right balance of potassium (and other electrolytes) can keep your energy level humming along as well as your muscle and nervous system functioning correctly. With all the things you have to do and remember in your busy day, keeping the right potassium balance can be made simple if you just remember to maintain optimal nutrition and hydration every day. Ask your doctor, or pharmacist, about any medications you may be taking that may contribute to an imbalance, whether too high or too low, of potassium.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.