A potassium deficiency is bad news for your health, but don't worry if you haven't been eating enough of the mineral -- poor diet rarely causes a serious potassium deficit. In most cases, a medical condition or medication is responsible for dangerously low levels. However, low-potassium diets are linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, so it's still important to get the recommended daily intake of potassium. Signs of potassium deficiency, called hypokalemia, include lethargy, weakness, cramping, upset stomach and irregular heartbeat.
Potassium is an electrolyte that, along with sodium, regulates fluid balance in your body. This important mineral allows you to contract your muscles and helps maintain healthy blood pressure. Potassium is shown to help prevent kidney stones, and high levels are also linked to healthier bones. Ideally, you should get 4,700 milligrams of the stuff in your diet every day, according to the Institute of Medicine. Most Americans get just over half that amount.
Diarrhea and vomiting both deplete your body of potassium, but as long as you restore the lost electrolyte, a bout of the flu won't have long-term effects. Chronic conditions that affect nutrient absorption, such as Crohn's disease, can create long-lasting potassium deficiency. So can metabolic or diabetic acidosis, characterized by excessive acid levels. Kidney disease can also cause a long-term deficiency, as can severe malnutrition. Negative nitrogen balance, which occurs when your body expels more nitrogen than you consume, can lead to low potassium, as can bulimia.
Sometimes it's not a medical condition that causes hypokalemia, but rather the medication used to treat it. Antibiotics such as penicillin and gentamicin can be to blame. So can diuretics that cause frequent urination, or overuse of laxatives that results in diarrhea. Other common potassium-sapping drugs include antacids, corticosteroids, insulin and the antifungal medication fluconazole. If you need to take any of these for an extended period of time, speak with your doctor about the risks.
Potassium and Food
Guard against low potassium levels with a varied diet that's rich in whole foods. Like Mom always said, eat your spinach -- it has 840 milligrams of potassium per cup, even after cooking. Baked potatoes are also high in potassium with 800 milligrams per medium-sized potato -- just don't remove the skin. Other sources include broccoli, tomatoes and strawberries. In general, leafy greens, root veggies and vine fruits are go-to foods for potassium.
Nina K. is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been published by USAToday.com, Fitday.com, Healthy Living Magazine, Organic Authority and numerous other print and web publications. She has a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism certificate from UCLA.