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Potassium (K+) is an important mineral in your body and most (98%) of it is found inside your cells. This electrolyte is important for your muscles, including your heart, to work efficiently. It also plays a vital role in regulating your blood pressure.

The normal potassium level in the blood is 3.5-5.0 mmol/L. A potassium level below 3.5 mmol/L is considered low potassium (hypokalemia). The kidneys are the main organs that maintain potassium balance in the body by removing excess amounts into the urine.

Your potassium level often changes with your sodium level. Potassium levels go down when sodium levels go up, while potassium levels go up when sodium levels go down. Its levels are also affected by the hormone aldosterone, which is produced in the adrenal glands. Other factors that affect K+ levels include kidney function, blood pH, your diet, hormonal balance in your body, and other health conditions and medications you are taking. Pregnancy in itself is not a disease or a condition that is likely to cause low potassium. However, other factors, such as severe vomiting and dehydration, which may be associated with pregnancy, may affect your electrolyte levels.

Causes Of Low Potassium

Small changes in potassium levels can have serious effects on your heart, muscles, and nerves. Common causes of hypokalemia include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, excessive sweating and laxative abuse. Other factors that may cause low potassium include:

  • Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa/bulimia)
  • Alcoholism
  • Post-bariatric surgery
  • Hyperaldosteronism (high levels of aldosterone from the adrenal glands)
  • Severe burns
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Cushing's syndrome
  • Malnutrition
  • Low body magnesium levels
  • Certain kidney diseases (ex. Bartter's syndrome)
  • Use of certain medications, such as diuretics or water pills, antibiotics such as gentamicin, tobramycin (Nebcin), or Amphotericin B, and prednisone

Symptoms Of Low Potassium

Symptoms of hypokalemia are usually mild and vague. You can have more than one symptom, which may involve your digestive system, muscles, heart, kidneys, and nerves. These include:

  • Weakness or tiredness
  • Cramping in the arm or leg muscles
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Palpitations
  • Increased urine volume
  • Unusual thirst
  • Fainting
  • Abnormal behaviors: depression, psychosis, confusion, delirium, or hallucinations.

When To Seek Medical Attention

Seek medical advice if you are experiencing these symptoms, especially when you are pregnant, taking medications or if you have a medical condition. A routine blood test or electrocardiogram (ECG) will help determine if your K+ level is low. Potassium replacement therapy may be needed in the form of dietary potassium and/or supplements.

Most of the potassium in our body comes from dietary intake. If you have mild hypokalemia, your doctor will suggest eating potassium-rich foods such as:

  • Fruits: apricots, bananas, oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, kiwi, avocados
  • Vegetables: greens, peas, beets, mushrooms, tomatoes
  • Juices: Orange, apricot, grapefruit, prune
  • Meats: fish, turkey, beef

Doctors usually recommend taking potassium supplements and request for repeat blood tests two to three days thereafter. If you are using diuretics, you may be asked to shift to potassium-sparing diuretics. If your potassium is chronically low in spite of taking supplements, consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment of a possible underlying condition such as kidney disease.

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