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 Minerals: Potassium 
 

Deficiency of potassium is much more common, especially with aging or chronic disease. Some common problems that have been associated with low potassium levels include hypertension, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrythmias, fatigue, and depression and other mood changes. Many factors reduce body levels of potassium. Diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal problems may rapidly reduce potassium. Infants with diarrhea must be watched closely for low blood potassium, termed hypokalemia. Diabetes and renal disease may cause low as well as high potassium levels. Several drugs can cause hypokalemia-diuretic therapy is of most concern; long-term use of laxatives, aspirin, digitalis, and cortisone may also deplete potassium. Heat waves and profuse sweating can cause potassium loss and lead to dehydration, with potassium leaving the cells along with sodium and being lost in the urine. This can generate some of the symptoms associated with low potassium; most people are helped rapidly with potassium supplements or potassium-rich foods. People who consume excess sodium can lose extra urinary potassium, and people who eat lots of sugar also may become low in potassium.

Fatigue is the most common symptom of chronic potassium deficiency. Early symptoms include muscle weakness, slow reflexes, and dry skin or acne; these initial problems may progress to nervous disorders, insomnia, slow or irregular heartbeat, and loss of gastrointestinal tone. A sudden loss of potassium may lead to cardiac arrythmias. Low potassium may impair glucose metabolism and lead to elevated blood sugar. In more severe potassium deficiency, there can be serious muscle weakness, bone fragility, central nervous system changes, decreased heart rate, and even death. Potassium is the most commonly measured blood mineral in medicine, and deficiencies must be watched for carefully and treated without delay with supplemental potassium.

Requirements: There is no specific RDA for potassium, though it is thought that at least 2-2.5 grams per day are needed, or about 0.8-1.5 grams per 1,000 calories consumed. The average American diet includes from 2-6 grams per day.

In cooking or canning foods, potassium is depleted but sodium is increased, as it is in most American processed foods as well. It is suggested that we include more potassium than sodium in our diets; a ratio of about 2:1 would be ideal. When we increase sodium intake, we should also consume more potassium-rich foods or take a potassium supplement.

Over-the-counter potassium supplements usually contain 99 mg. per tablet. Prescription potassium is usually measured in milliequivalents (meq.); 1 meq. equals about 64 mg. About 10-20 meq. (640-1280 mg.) per day may be recommended as a supplement to the individual's diet.

The inorganic potassium salts are found as the sulfate, chloride, oxide, or carbonate. Organic salts are potassium gluconate, fumarate, or citrate. These organic molecules are normally part of our cells and body tissues. Potassium liquids and salt substitutes containing potassium chloride (KCl) are other ways to obtain additional sources of this mineral. Potassium is well absorbed, so it is available to the body in most forms.

(Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition ISBN: 1587611791)
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 About The Author
Elson Haas MDElson M. Haas, MD is founder & Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (since 1984), an Integrated Health Care Facility in San Rafael, CA and author of many books on Health and Nutrition, including ...more
 
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