Potassium deficiency: symptoms and treatment of potassium deficiency

The medical name for a potassium deficiency is hypokalemia. A potassium deficiency can especially occur if you vomit a lot and/or suffer from diarrhea, for example if you have stomach flu. The use of certain water pills can also cause a potassium deficiency. The concentration of potassium in the blood is usually between 3.5 and 5.0 mmol per liter. A potassium deficiency usually manifests itself with physical symptoms from 3.2 mmol/liter. The symptoms are usually non-specific initially. Fatigue, poor concentration, increased nervousness, loss of appetite, constipation as well as flatulence are typical complaints. Supplementing a potassium deficiency by using potassium tablets is only recommended if you do so in consultation with the doctor. People who are advised to consume a lot of potassium can do this by eating potatoes, vegetables and fruit every day. These foods contain a lot of potassium.

  • What do you need potassium for?
  • Potassium deficiency causes
  • General
  • Eating disorders
  • Poor nutrition
  • Disease
  • Medicines
  • Potassium deficiency symptoms and consequences
  • Phenomena
  • Danger to life with a serious potassium deficiency
  • When to consult a doctor?
  • Examination and diagnosis
  • Blood tests
  • Visual art investigation
  • Potassium deficiency treatment
  • Administer potassium chloride
  • Additional test
  • Self-care measures
  • Potassium deficiency and nutrition
  • RDA of potassium
  • Change of diet
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Other products
  • Overdose
  • Prognosis
  • Prevention


Potassium, together with chloride and sodium, regulates the fluid balance and blood pressure in the body. / Source: Kurhan/Shutterstock

What do you need potassium for?

Potassium is a mineral (electrolyte) that the body needs for the normal functioning of cells, nerves and muscles. Together with sodium, potassium plays a role in fluid balance and the transmission of stimuli in the nervous system. Potassium ensures that the muscles in the body contract and that nerve impulses are properly conducted. Potassium, together with sodium, also plays a role in regulating blood pressure. Nearly 98% of potassium is found in the cells. Small changes in potassium levels outside the cells can have serious effects on the heart, nerves and muscles. The kidney is the main organ that regulates potassium levels in the body. In excess, potassium is excreted via the kidneys. The kidneys are designed to rapidly adapt their ability to reabsorb or excrete potassium.

Potassium deficiency causes


The human body is usually able to provide the right amount of potassium, but sometimes this is not possible due to certain circumstances. It is the kidneys that keep the amount of potassium in the body constant. A potassium deficiency is caused by an imbalance between potassium absorption and excretion. Rarely, this is caused by the body absorbing too little potassium from food. A potassium deficiency is often caused by severe vomiting, severe diarrhea or the use of certain diuretics. A deficiency of potassium in the diet is unusual because potassium is present in many foods.
Together with sodium, potassium helps regulate the body’s fluid balance. Potassium is essential for many metabolic processes. In addition, the mineral cannot be missed in the transmission of nerve impulses, proper muscle function and for maintaining normal blood pressure. A potassium deficiency is a lack of potassium in the body. There can be many causes, including illness (especially severe vomiting and/or severe diarrhea) and poor nutrition (malnutrition). When the body is unable to absorb potassium or receives too little potassium in foods, this can result in a potassium deficiency. A reduced potassium level in the blood is called ‘hypokalemia’.

Eating disorders

One of the causes of a potassium deficiency is eating disorders. The two main eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia.
People with Bulimia Nervosa regularly suffer from binge eating with loss of control. They consume large amounts of food in a very short time, but due to an extensive focus on weight control and extreme over-concern about body shape and weight, they try to lose it as quickly as possible. This can be done by vomiting, fasting, intensive exercise and the use of laxatives.
The main characteristics of anorexia nervosa is an obsession with food, weight and body size. Anorexia patients suppress their appetite, exhibit disordered eating behavior and exhibit an extreme desire to be thin.
Potassium deficiency in anorexia is caused by the body being starved and deprived of valuable nutrients, vitamins and minerals, including potassium. Without adequate consumption of foods rich in potassium, a deficiency will inevitably occur. In bulimia, a potassium deficiency occurs as a result of vomiting and/or the excessive use of laxatives, possibly resulting in muscle weakness and cardiac arrhythmias, which can lead to death. Due to heavy vomiting and/or the use of laxatives, the body is unable to absorb potassium as it should.

Poor nutrition

Only very rarely does a potassium deficiency occur due to a one-sided diet. By eating lots of potatoes, vegetables and fruit, you can quickly replenish the deficit.


Another cause of a potassium deficiency is illness. Like severe vomiting, excessive diarrhea can lead to the body’s inability to absorb potassium.
A thyroid disorder can affect potassium levels. For example, hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) can result in potassium deficiency.


Various medications can lead to a potassium deficiency in the body. Drugs known to cause potassium deficiency include diuretics (water pills), which are often used to treat high blood pressure and chronic heart failure. Furthermore, hypokalemia can be caused by medications such as prednisone, insulin medications, etc.

Fatigue due to a potassium deficiency / Source: Istock.com/BartekSzewczyk

Potassium deficiency symptoms and consequences


The reference values for potassium are 3.5 – 5.0 mmol/l. A potassium level that is too low is then below 3.5 mmol/l. The symptoms of a potassium deficiency are:

  • fatigue, lethargy and loss of appetite;
  • muscle weakness, cramps in arm muscles or leg muscles (or in the hand, leg, foot and toes), sometimes even paralysis;
  • tingling or numbness;
  • nausea and vomiting;
  • abdominal cramps, bloating;
  • constipation; and
  • (in severe cases) cardiac arrhythmias.


Danger to life with a serious potassium deficiency

From a concentration of less than 2.5 mmol/l, potassium deficiency can have life-threatening consequences. Because potassium deficiency disrupts communication between nerve and muscle cells, complaints occur in many areas. In the cardiovascular system, cardiac arrhythmias or increased heart rate, as well as water retention in the tissues (edema) are typical signs of potassium deficiency. This is particularly worrisome for people with heart problems.
In the area of nerves and muscles, there is initially weakness, muscle weakness and muscle cramps. With a pronounced potassium deficiency, the symptoms progress to paralysis, loss of consciousness and coma.

General practitioner with patient / Source: Istock.com/monkeybusinessimages

When to consult a doctor?

If you notice symptoms that may indicate low potassium levels, consult your doctor. If you experience muscle cramps, weakness or palpitations, seek medical attention. Without symptoms, you will not know that you have a low potassium level until blood tests show this.

Examination and diagnosis

Sometimes the cause of a potassium deficiency is not clear. Your doctor may perform certain tests to rule out other conditions, such as renal tubular acidosis (a disease of the kidneys), Conn’s disease (primary hyperaldosteronism) and hypocalcemia (decreased calcium in the blood).

Collection of blood for research / Source: Istock.com/Jovanmandic

Blood tests

Blood tests can be done to check for potassium levels, kidney function, glucose, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus if an electrolyte imbalance is suspected.

Visual art investigation

ECG (ECG) is performed to detect electrical changes in the heart and certain types of irregular heart rhythms that may be caused by low potassium levels.

Potassium deficiency treatment

Hypokalemia occurs when a serum potassium concentration is less than or equal to 3.5 mmol/l, and a distinction is often made between mild and severe hypokalemia. Severe hypokalemia involves a serum potassium concentration of 2.5 mmol/l or lower.

Cardiac film / Source: Martin Sulman

Administer potassium chloride

If there are no life-threatening complications or ECG abnormalities (ECG = ECG), the potassium deficiency will be resolved by oral treatment. Potassium chloride in a dosage of 40 to 100 mmol/day is the treatment of choice. Intravenous administration is sometimes indicated in patients with severe symptomatic hypokalemia and for patients with an absorption disorder. The primary goal of treatment is to combat threatening symptoms as quickly as possible. The difficulty here is to give the right amount of potassium in the right amount of time, without overshooting and causing hyperkalemia (an excess of potassium).

Additional test

Sometimes the cause of the potassium deficiency is not clear. The doctor may perform certain tests to rule out underlying conditions. Certain hormonal disorders, such as Conn’s disease, can cause a potassium deficiency. In that case, the underlying cause of the potassium deficiency will also have to be treated.

Self-care measures

If you suffer from low potassium, avoid prolonged physical activity. Loss of potassium can occur with sweating. If dietary supplements, herbal supplements or laxatives are causing the low potassium levels, you should avoid these products and seek medical advice from your doctor. Never stop taking medication prescribed by the doctor without first discussing this with the doctor.

Potassium deficiency and nutrition

RDA of potassium

Potassium, together with sodium, helps regulate the body’s fluid balance. The mineral is essential for many metabolic processes. It is also necessary for the transmission of nerve pulses, proper muscle function and maintenance of good blood pressure. Most plant foods contain potassium, in varying amounts. No Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) has been established for potassium in the Netherlands. The European recommendation is 3.1 to 3.5 grams of potassium per day for adults.

Tomatoes contain a lot of potassium / Source: Vlad Teodor/Shutterstock.com

Change of diet

A change in diet may be recommended for low potassium or potassium deficiency. Examples of foods high in potassium that you can use to supplement your potassium levels include:

  • bananas
  • tomatoes
  • oranges
  • cantaloupe melons
  • peaches

Potassium is mainly present in milk (products), vegetables, fruit (juices), potatoes, coffee and also in bread and nuts.

Bananas are full of the mineral potassium / Source: StockSnap, Pixabay


What types of fruits are rich in potassium?

  • a quarter of a melon contains 800 to 900 mg of potassium
  • papaya (781 mg)
  • a cup of prune juice (707)
  • avocado (485)
  • a small banana (467)
  • a third cup of raisins (363)
  • an average mango (323)
  • a kiwi (252)
  • an orange (189)
  • an average pear (208)
  • a peach (193)
  • a small apple (159) or half a cup of apple juice (147)

Furthermore, dried fruits contain a lot of potassium. Fruit juice is also rich in potassium.

Spinach leaves contain potassium / Source: Lecic/Shutterstock.com


Which types of vegetables contain a lot of potassium?

  • a whole eggplant (1260)
  • a portion of cooked spinach (838)
  • a plate full of cooked asparagus (808)
  • a medium potato (794)
  • three medium carrots (586)
  • parsnips, per small portion (573)
  • a small portion of zucchini (340)
  • a portion of broccoli (288)
  • a medium tomato (218)


Other products

Other products high in potassium are apple syrup, cocoa, coffee, milk and milk products, meat, bread, nuts, legumes such as white/brown beans and capuchins and lentils.


If your doctor advises you to consume more potassium, you can easily adjust your diet. By eating generous portions of potatoes, vegetables and fruit every day, you can increase your potassium intake. Potassium tablets are available at health food stores or drugstores, but do not use them on your own. An overdose of potassium can lead to nausea, diarrhea and serious cardiac arrhythmias, possibly resulting in sudden death.


A low potassium level is easily treatable. The reason for the low potassium level must be determined, otherwise the chance of recurrence is high. With proper treatment there are usually no further problems.


In the best case, you prevent a potassium deficiency. In healthy people, this can easily be done without medication and nutritional supplements. A healthy and varied diet is sufficient. You should also make sure that you always drink enough. Mineral water, fruit juice spritzers or herbal teas are low in calories but provide plenty of natural minerals and electrolytes. Plant foods such as bananas, apricots, raspberries or rhubarb are particularly rich in potassium. Almost all fresh vegetables (especially cabbage and green vegetables, but also carrots, pumpkin or celery) contain a lot of potassium.

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