Potassium has many important functions in the body. It helps regulate blood pressure and is important for a healthy heart and blood vessels. Potassium also helps maintain the water balance in the body, aids in muscle contractions, proper nervous system functioning and it helps us to digest protein and carbohydrate in the diet.
It can be fairly easy to meet your potassium requirements with the diet if you are including fruits and vegetables. It is estimated that the minimum requirement for potassium is 2,000 mg per day for a healthy individual. However, some individuals need more potassium because of medications, absorption problems or losses due to heavy sweating. People with kidney disease or ulcers may need to limit potassium consumption.
Individuals who take thiazide diuretics, long-term steroid therapy, insulin or laxatives are at risk of a potassium deficiency. Deficiencies can also be caused by high sodium diets, chronic diarrhea or vomiting, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease. Athletes with heavy sweat losses who do not replace potassium can also run the risk of low potassium levels as well.
A severe potassium deficiency can cause the following symptoms:
- Fatigue, drowsiness and confusion
- Muscle weakness and/or cramps
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of appetite and/or intense thirst
- Heart arrhythmias
The best way to prevent a potassium deficiency is to eat potassium rich foods. Some people may need potassium supplements to meet their needs, but this is something that should be discussed with a doctor because high doses of potassium in supplement form can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Extremely high doses (>18,000 mg) can even lead to heart attacks. However, a healthy person cannot get toxic levels of potassium from food.
Good sources of potassium in the diet are:
- Fresh fruits, dried fruits and fruit juices
- Bananas, cantaloupe, oranges, strawberries and watermelon
- Dried Fruits like raisins, prunes and apricots
- Orange, grapefruit and prune juices
- Beets, potatoes, lima beans, green peas, spinach and tomatoes
- Fish, ham, beef and turkey
- Beans, Pistachios and peanuts