10 Most Common Signs of Potassium Deficiency You Need to Know

Maintaining optimal potassium levels is rarely considered when planning our healthy lifestyles. This should not be the case as potassium is an important mineral, necessary for… Simi - November 14, 2017

Maintaining optimal potassium levels is rarely considered when planning our healthy lifestyles. This should not be the case as potassium is an important mineral, necessary for the proper functioning of our bodies. In fact, Potassium is one of the most abundant minerals found in the body. Potassium is actually one of the essential minerals found in blood. It is called an electrolyte. As an electrolyte, potassium enables cells to generate a spike of electrical discharge. This is critical for important body functions like heart function, muscle contraction, and nerve transmission, to occur.

Without the optimal level of potassium stored in your body, you are likely to develop hypokalemia, a chronic condition. Potassium deficiency can be triggered by a number of things, but there are a few prevalent causes. For instance, dehydration or frequent diarrhea can deplete your body’s potassium reserves. Potassium deficiency can also be caused by certain prescription medications, like diuretics. A diet that lacks foods rich in potassium is also a common culprit. Yogurt, broccoli, sweet potatoes, fish, beef, and bananas are a few potassium-rich foods.

Despite the cause, however, low potassium levels can be harmful to your quality of life. The symptoms may be mild at first, but without restoring your potassium levels they will worsen and lower your general well-being. In severe cases, some symptoms can even be fatal. For this reason, it is important that you recognize the signs of potassium deficiency. To guide you, here is a list of ten common indications that you may need to be tested for hypokalemia.

Heart Palpitations

Potassium plays a part in each heartbeat, over one hundred thousand times a day. For the heart to function in an efficient way, it requires a normal supply of electrolytes. Potassium, one of the main electrolytes, helps trigger your heart to squeeze blood throughout your body. Potassium allows your heart to beat in a regular and healthy pattern. Hence, irregular potassium levels can result in the weakening of your heart muscle, and irregular heartbeat patterns. As your body’s levels of potassium drop below the optimal level, your heart rate will increase and result in heart palpitations.

Irregular heartbeat is one of the more unnerving symptoms resulting from potassium deficiency. Palpitations can manifest in numerous forms but are more often associated with the feeling of skipping a heartbeat. They may also occur as a very strong or racing heartbeat. Palpitations are common and can be caused by various other factors, besides potassium deficiency.

Owing to these range of causes, insufficient potassium levels are often overlooked as the cause. By immediately ruling out potassium deficiency as a cause, you leave room for serious consequences. For instance, some types of irregular heartbeat patterns can increase the risk of having a stroke. Hence, it is advised that continuous episodes of heart palpitations be reported to a doctor.

The doctor will most likely gather more information with an ECG. After having electrodes attached to your chest, you will need to carry a recording device with you for approximately one to three days. The doctor will use the recording to analyze your heartbeat and determine whether there is any potential harm to your well-being.

Weakness, Cramping, and Pain in Muscles

Muscle cramps usually occur after injury, or buildup of lactic acid after strenuous activity. But if you are experiencing cramping in your muscles on a frequent basis and there is no obvious explanation, hypokalemia may be the culprit. This is because Potassium plays an important role in maintaining proper muscle function.

Since it functions as an electrolyte, potassium handles the transmission of electrical nerve impulses. Muscles contract because of these electrical impulses from nerves. If there is a potassium deficiency in the body, muscles become rigid leading to tension and weakened function. Weak muscles and muscle spasms, particularly in the arms and legs, are common symptoms of hypokalemia.

Besides cramping and weakened muscles, muscle pain is also a common occurrence. This is due to potassium deficiency damaging muscle cells. Your muscles will ache and feel tender when you touch them, despite lack of any strenuous activity. Muscle pain caused by potassium deficiency is most often felt in the leg region, but can also appear in any muscle. Owing to the weakened muscles and pain, lifting even moderate to heavy objects proves difficult.

Left untreated, hypokalemia has been shown to cause a paralysis-like sensation. But, intravenous potassium intake has been shown effective in reversing this within 24 hours. Although recovery is possible, the paralysis can be immediately hazardous if you are walking or driving. Untreated hypokalemia may also result in rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which muscle tissue is broken down. According to the Institute of Medicine, adults should consume 4,700 mg of potassium daily. This amount is necessary for the support of muscle function and overall good health.

Digestive Disturbances

Smooth muscles are able to contract because of potassium. The digestive system is made of smooth muscles that contract in order to push food down the gastrointestinal tract. This mechanism is called peristalsis. It is disrupted by hypokalemia weakening the smooth muscles. Weak smooth muscles in the digestive system may lead to impaired digestive function and intestinal paralysis.

Peristalsis is necessary for digestion, absorption, and metabolism to occur. When these functions become slower, a number of issues in the digestive system will occur. Symptoms of hypokalemia related to the digestive system include feeling or appearing bloated. Some hypokalemia patients have even reported that their bloating was so severe it made them appear pregnant. Painful cramps in your abdomen that are not relieved by bowel movements are another common symptom.

In addition, potassium deficiency may also lead to constipation. This is because potassium is the main electrolyte responsible for proper muscle movement. Without the correct potassium levels in your system, your colon’s muscles become slow and less active. The incomplete digestion of foods owing to disrupted peristalsis also causes a build-up of waste in your colon. Hard stool, along with fatigued muscles, makes it even more difficult for a proper bowel movement to occur.

Unfortunately, these symptoms are a common occurrence and are associated with a variety of illnesses. Consequently, these symptoms can easily be confused with irritable bowel syndrome. If you are experiencing digestive disturbances as well as several other symptoms listed here, you should mention a potassium deficiency as a potential cause. Your doctor will most likely give you a urine or blood test before ruling out hypokalemia. The correct diagnosis will save you time and money.


Feeling nauseous is another common symptom of potassium deficiency. It may be subtle at first and occur in response to factors that usually result in queasiness. This could be not eating or drinking water for several hours, strenuous exercise, or a long car ride. As your potassium levels continue to diminish, nausea will occur more frequently at unusual times, and for longer periods.

Potassium is essential for the proper functioning of the nerve and muscle cells. If your body’s potassium levels are too low, your muscles may start to cramp leading to nausea. The lack of efficient peristalsis also contributes to feelings of nausea. Without enough potassium, the smooth muscles in the digestive system are unable to push food down the gastrointestinal tract. This indigestion of food can also cause nausea.

Since there are numerous causes for vomiting, it is unlikely to immediately guess that a potassium deficiency is a cause. Allergies to food, neurological problems, and possible pregnancy, are a few of the causes that result in hypokalemia being overlooked.

Regardless of whether hypokalemia is the cause of your nausea, it is important that you pay attention to your potassium intake. Since nausea often leads to vomiting, it will result in the loss of electrolytes like potassium. This means any prolonged illness or medication causing vomiting may lead to hypokalemia if you do not replace the lost potassium. Treatment in the case of a medication causing your nausea is simple. Your doctor will most likely prescribe another medication to you that does not have nausea as a side effect.

Increased Sodium Intake

Craving salt and eating foods rich in salt are not symptoms of a potassium deficiency. They are, however, two signs that you should be watching your potassium levels. This is because as your sodium intake increases so does your excretion of potassium.

This is because the renal regulation of sodium is closely connected to that of potassium. The active reabsorption of sodium is accompanied by the secretion and excretion of potassium. Since this is the case, an imbalance in potassium levels is closely related to a sodium imbalance. Thus, if your diet contains higher amounts of sodium than potassium, you are likely to develop hypokalemia.

A diet rich in sodium will lead to the body taking up more sodium than it needs. This will attract more fluids and promote water retention, resulting in swelling and bloating. By supplying your body with potassium, you will be able to maintain fluid balance within your body. This is because potassium counteracts the negative effects of excessive sodium intake. The mineral does this by encouraging the expulsion of excess sodium in the body.

If you notice that your salt intake is too high, consider eating less salty foods. By replacing the salty foods in your diet with potassium-rich sources like avocados, potatoes, and fish, you will be lowering your risk of hypokalemia. By reducing your salt intake, you will also be positively affecting your blood pressure. High sodium intake has been linked to increased blood pressure, which strains your heart. This extra strain increases the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease. However, since potassium regulates fluids, optimal potassium levels can regulate blood pressure.

Fluid Imbalance

Water retention is a common symptom of potassium deficiency. This is because potassium directly affects blood pressure, which affects fluid retention. Good blood pressure will prevent blood from overpowering the capillaries. This prevents fluids from leaking into tissue spaces, causing fluid retention. Potassium also regulates kidney function, controlling the amount of fluid taken in by the body and the amount eliminated. Without efficient maintenance of this function, water retention will occur.

Water retention leads to conditions like edema, weight gain, and bloating. Edema causes swelling and puffiness in the ankles, abdomen, face, and feet. Swelling in these areas, or belly fat that won’t go away even with continuous exercise, are signs of water retention. Potassium supplements are sometimes prescribed for treating edema. Note you should consult your doctor before taking extra potassium, especially if you are also taking diuretics.

Hypokalemia may also impair your kidney’s ability to concentrate urine. This leads to excessive urination and excessive thirst. Frequent urination caused by hypokalemia further diminishes your potassium supply. Hence, staying hydrated with water, without over-diluting your cells, will help prevent potassium levels from becoming too low. Most electrolytes are lost through sweating so it is especially important for you to drink water during and after exercise.

Before urine and blood tests are carried out, Potassium deficiency is often misdiagnosed as diabetes. This confusion is owing to both hypokalemia and diabetes causing increased thirst and urination. To rule out the possibility of diabetes your doctor will carry out a glucose test on you. If the results come back negative for diabetes, you should mention to your doctor that you suspect a potassium deficiency to be the cause.


As mentioned earlier, potassium plays an essential role in neurotransmission. This is the process that transfers information in the form of electrical impulses between neurons and their targets. Low levels of potassium affect the passage of electrical impulses from the skin and muscles to the spinal cord and brain. This leads to abnormal sensations, including numbness, tingling, creeping, and prickling. Also known as paresthesia, these sensations tend to occur in the fingers, hands, toes, and feet. It can also reach other areas including the legs, arms, and head.

Paresthesia is one of the more mild symptoms associated with potassium deficiency. This numb or tingling sensation in the body is often referred to as “falling asleep” or “pins-and-needles”. Although these sensations are not usually painful, they can be unnerving and uncomfortable. The sensations are temporary but will become a regular occurrence if the cause is not addressed.

Paresthesia may also be caused by too much potassium in your body, so pay attention to how much potassium you are consuming. If you find that you are experiencing odd sensations, as well as other symptoms listed, you should definitely attend to your potassium levels. Without normal levels of potassium, your nerves will continue to function abnormally and affect your sense of touch.

However, paresthesia can also be an indication of nerve dysfunctions or neurological disorders. If you recognize paresthesia as your only symptom, then you should consider meeting with a neurologist. Abnormal sensations may also result from the onset of a migraine or anxiety. It is also important to note that sudden numbness not linked to any previous diagnosis, may be a sign of stroke.


Symptoms of muscle weakness or lack of energy may indicate a potassium deficiency. Potassium is so closely tied to energy maintenance, that low levels of the mineral can have dramatic effects on your energy levels. In fact, most major symptoms of hypokalemia are actually related to fatigue. This is tied to the important role potassium plays in the healthy functioning of nerves and muscles. Also, given that potassium is vital for regulating blood pressure, it is no surprise that hypokalemia often causes fatigue.

Low potassium levels can cause your heart rate to significantly decrease, reducing the supply of oxygen to your body’s cells. Without sufficient oxygen supply, you are likely to experience “brain fog”, and dizziness. Potassium is also partially responsible for boosting metabolism. The mineral does this by helping to break down carbohydrates into glucose and turning them into energy for our body’s use. Without usable energy, we will struggle to function efficiently.

Fatigue caused by hypokalemia may not be immediately noticeable at first. For example, you may find that you are slightly more tired after physical activity than you used to be. Over time, the symptom will turn into extreme feelings of exhaustion that prevent you from living your best life. If left untreated, simply feeling extra tired can result in feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or fainting.

If simple tasks like walking up stairs or making your bed are leaving you exhausted, it is likely that there is an underlying condition behind your fatigue. Even if hypokalemia is not the culprit, there is definitely something wrong with your health and you should consult your doctor. The appropriate treatment of your fatigue will help you feel better within a few weeks.


As mentioned earlier, potassium plays an important role in the maintenance of energy in the body. As one of the main electrolytes, potassium assists in transferring energy to the nervous system, brain, heart, and muscles. In cases of hypokalemia, the heart will send nutrients and oxygen to these areas at a much slower pace. This results in tiredness, dizziness, and feeling lightheaded. In more severe cases, a decline in heart rate may increase the risk of heart failure.

You may further feel dizzy and faint because of hypokalemia, due to the minerals’ essential role in regulating kidney function. If you have an electrolyte imbalance in your body, your kidneys are no longer able to concentrate waste products from your blood. As a result, only water is eliminated from your body. This results in extreme fluid loss and a decline in blood pressure (hypotension). This will lead to dizziness, especially while standing, and can lead to fainting. If you are feeling lightheaded, it is best that you don’t try to stand up on your own before consuming food rich in potassium.

These symptoms, however, are typically triggered by sharp and severe drops in potassium levels, and not a gradual decline. At first, you may only feel slightly clumsy or unsteady, but these issues will only worsen if left untreated. Over time, the severe fatigue and confusion caused by hypokalemia can cause one to faint.

Insufficient potassium levels are only one cause of fainting. Regardless of the cause, fainting can put you at risk of a severe injury or concussion. Hence, it is important that you consult a doctor immediately if there is no reasonable explanation for your fainting.

Mental Health Conditions

It is important to remember that hypokalemia does not only affect physical health but also influences mental health. Episodes of hallucinations, depression, and psychosis, can be triggered by low potassium levels. Some of the symptoms associated with these mental conditions are often caused by fatigue from hypokalemia. Extreme tiredness can affect your quality of life as it hinders basic functions and activities.

However, mental health problems can also be directly caused by hypokalemia itself. Potassium deficiency can cause hormonal balances in your body that result in episodes of mental conditions. In fact, research has shown that depression and mood swings can develop with changes in nutritional deficiencies. Potassium deficiency is one of these. Furthermore, several studies have shown that subjects with mild depression symptoms, experienced an improvement in their mood after they increased their intake of potassium.

This is not surprising as potassium plays a central part in maintaining neurotransmission and the conduction of electrical impulses in the brain. In fact, potassium handles the transport of serotonin to the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. This explains why the subjects in the study experienced better moods after they attended to their potassium levels.

Mental lethargy is another symptom of hypokalemia to look out for. This symptom is common because potassium is important for the functioning of our nerves, brain, and energy levels. Thus it is necessary for learning processes and cognitive functions. If you experience difficulty in concentrating, finishing tasks and retaining information, you may have a potassium deficiency. Mental fatigue can end up leading to stress and frustration at the inability to perform at the desired level. These can, in turn, lead to depression and irritability, if left unaddressed.