Benefits of Potassium and Signs of Deficiency
Potassium is one of the most important micronutrients that you need in your diet, in order to maintain your health. It’s also one of the electrolytes you often see mentioned when reading on electrolytes and keto.
This is because the keto diet has a diuretic effect, which means that electrolytes get flushed out of your body at a higher rate.
As a consequence, you need to pay closer attention to them than most people, as electrolyte deficiency could have nasty and potentially dangerous side effects.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the role potassium plays in your health, what benefits it has and what are the symptoms of its deficiency.
Let’s look at the basics first.
What is Potassium?
Potassium is an electrolyte, meaning that it dissolves in water to form ions, which, in turn, conduct electricity in your body.
In the case of potassium, these are positive ions. The electricity is used by your body to manage a number of processes, such as muscle contractions, fluid balance, and nerve signalling (1).
That’s why electrolytes are very important. They play an essential role in bodily functions, such as maintaining your heartbeat, the ability to move your muscles, as well as managing the amount of fluids you are retaining or losing, and so on.
Potassium and sodium in your body are in a balance that is tightly controlled. Nerve signaling is carried out when potassium ions are moving out of the cells, while sodium ions are moving in the cells.
Nerve signals are essential for all bodily functions, which is also why potassium is such an important element, not only for overall health but also for the basic functioning of your body.
Contrary to sodium, which is easily stored in the body, there is no mechanism to store potassium and to prevent its depletion if a certain daily amount is not ingested.
Even at low concentrations of potassium in the blood, the kidneys will still continue to excrete it. That’s why it’s so essential to get the needed amount of potassium every day.
Top Health Benefits of Potassium
Potassium is a daily necessity, contrary to some other micronutrients, for which deficiencies usually take a long while to develop.
As you could see, it is an important element to some of the most basic bodily functions. Here are some of the potassium’s roles and benefits.
#1. Regulates Blood Pressure And Prevents Cardiovascular Disease
High blood pressure is a symptom that affects many people and nearly one in three people in the States suffer from it. It also increases your risk of heart disease, which is why it’s so it’s important to manage it and to strive to lower it in the long run (2).
Getting enough potassium from your diet is one of the ways to manage blood pressure and try to keep it within a normal range. Medication might also be necessary, but watching your potassium intake should be your first line of defense.
This is why combining keto with getting enough potassium in could definitely have a beneficial effect on stabilizing your blood pressure.
Additionally, a study has found that a diet rich in potassium might help prevent the calcification of blood vessels and thus improve your overall cardiovascular health (4).
Atherosclerosis (in which a plaque is formed on the walls of your arteries) is a major risk factor for heart disease, and getting enough potassium daily could lower your risk of developing it (5).
#2. Helps Maintain The Health Of Your Bones And Muscles
Potassium has important benefits as far as bone density is concerned. The body needs to maintain a highly controlled pH balance, which is crucial for its proper functioning.
For that reason, it can sometimes tap into the alkaline reserves of the bones, which is done after other resources are used up, and unfortunately leads to a faster bone breakdown than usual.
Potassium is one of the minerals that help prevent that by neutralizing the acids that deplete bones from their base content, and as a result, it can help protect against losing bone mass.
Additionally, potassium seems to help the body utilize calcium better by lowering its excretion rate through the urine. This, in turn, helps protect against osteoporosis, as studies demonstrate (6, 7, 8, 9).
#3. It’s Essential For The Proper Functioning Of Your Nervous System
Nerve signaling happens with the help of electrolytes, who transmit the signals (in the form of electricity) from your brain to the rest of your body.
This is essential for all voluntarily and involuntarily functions of your body, such as breathing, reflexes, your heartbeat, muscle contractions, and so on.
This is why potassium, one of the electrolytes your body needs, is so important for the proper functioning of your nervous system.
If your potassium levels become too low, the body struggles with the generation of nerve impulses, which could result in temporary paralysis (10).
That’s why one of the symptoms of not getting enough potassium in is muscle cramps, spasms, weakness, and stiffness.
#4. Regulates Fluid Balance
Adequate potassium levels help maintain the fluid balance of the body and reduce water retention. It also balances sodium, and given that the keto diet has a diuretic effect, keeping an eye on your electrolytes is essential.
Being low on electrolytes might actually cause water bloat in some cases, which is why losing water weight is sometimes observed when upping your electrolytes.
Water retention can be mistakenly interpreted as a weight loss stall sometimes.
While many different things can cause it (such as stress, not getting enough sleep, hormonal fluctuations or even just a heavy workout), an electrolyte imbalance can definitely be a reason for it and managing your potassium intake can play a role.
Signs and Symptoms of Potassium Deficiency
As you could see, potassium is truly very important for the proper functioning of your muscles, nervous system, and your body as a whole.
Although the body can deal with lower than the optimal potassium levels and still maintain adequate health, it’s strongly advisable to eat a diet rich in potassium for the sake of your general health.
Given that on a keto diet plan you’ll excrete electrolytes at a higher than usual rate, it’s essential to replenish them. If you don’t do that, you risk experiencing some nasty deficiency symptoms.
Let’s look into these.
Given that your muscles and nerves need potassium to function properly, one of the first things you might experience if you don’t get enough of it, is general fatigue.
This might feel like a vague “blah” feeling, like physical tiredness (such as from not getting enough sleep), like brain fog and confusion, or like muscle fatigue. All of these things could point to a potential potassium deficiency.
#2. Muscle weakness
As you could see, potassium is essential for the (voluntarily and involuntarily) contractions of your muscles and from the proper signaling between your brain and the rest of your body.
Feeling noticeably weaker during a workout (or another form of strenuous physical activity) is one of the first symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance, and potassium deficiency in particular.
A general feeling of weakness in the muscles across your body definitely can point out towards not getting enough electrolytes.
#3. Muscle cramps
Muscle cramps is another common symptom. These are usually associated with a magnesium deficiency rather than a potassium one, but all electrolytes (together with sodium) should be tracked if you start getting muscle cramps.
Constipation can be caused by many different things, and when you change your diet and the amount of dietary fiber you get, it is a common side effect.
However, one of the reasons you get it on keto could be because of not getting enough potassium from food. There’s a list of keto-friendly foods (in the section below) you can eat to get more potassium.
#5. Heart Palpitations
Potassium plays an important role in maintaining the regularity of your heartbeat.
If you begin to feel heart palpitations (and have not had other cardiovascular symptoms before), a potassium deficiency could be the culprit.
If, however, they don’t resolve with restoring your electrolyte balance, or are accompanied by other symptoms, make sure to seek medical assistance and to not ignore them.
#6. Tingling, Numbness, and Itching in Your Extremities
If your hands and feet suddenly feel numb or itchy, or touching things feels strange, it might be a sign of a potassium deficiency, too.
Keep in mind that all of these deficiency symptoms are not necessarily potassium-specific. They could mean a deficiency in another electrolyte, or in more than one electrolyte.
If you feel any of them, it’s a good idea to start tracking all of your electrolytes and to make sure that you’re getting enough of each one of them.
The keto flu can also have similar symptoms, and some of them can actually be a sign of an electrolyte deficiency.
While some of its symptoms are simply caused by the fact that you’re making big changes to your diet and switching to burning fat instead of glucose, others can definitely be alleviated by managing your electrolyte intake.
Recommended Daily Potassium Intake
The recommended daily potassium intake is 4,700 mg. However, it’s estimated that less than 2% of adult Americans consume that amount of potassium daily (11).
If you’re doing keto, you’re flushing potassium out of your system at a quicker than the usual rate, which means that you need to be particularly strict with maintaining optimal intake.
There’s no need to go beyond the 4,700 mg daily or to supplement additional potassium, but just make sure you actually track it and keep an eye on it.
How to Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Potassium
Supplementing with potassium is generally not encouraged, due to the fact that taking too much could be very dangerous for your heart or even deadly (in very rare cases), if the kidneys cannot remove potassium from the blood quickly (12).
In many countries, potassium supplements are limited to 99 mg per tablet because of the potential dangers of ingesting too much of it.
That’s why it’s best to ensure that you’re getting enough potassium mainly from your food.
Here are some examples of low-carb potassium-rich foods you could include in your diet:
- Yogurt (unsweetened)
- Meat (beef, pork, chicken)
- Black tea (unsweetened)
Alternatively, you could get Nu-Salt or another salt substitute. These usually contain potassium and sodium, and not just sodium (as in regular table salt).
Different brands exist in different countries, so just look at the contents of the salt alternatives you have available to you, and see if they contain potassium, and what the percentage is. You could use it to salt your food, together with regular salt.
Keep in mind that on keto you also need to supplement with sodium, another important electrolyte, so it’s not a good idea to stop using regular salt altogether.
In order to ensure optimal intake, it’s a good idea to track potassium. You don’t need to do that manually.
Actually, many tracking apps (such as MyFitnessPal, Cron-o-meter, FatSecret, and others) will also track micronutrients in the food you eat, including potassium.
Keep in mind that most foods don’t list potassium on their labels, so the information for that specific food might be missing in the tracking app you’re using, too.
A diet heavy in processed foods will most likely be lower in potassium. Whole foods, especially veggies and meat, are naturally potassium-rich, and the entries for these are usually correct in the tracking apps (it’s still a good idea to double-check the info from time to time).
It’s also much better for you if your diet consists mostly of whole, natural foods, not only because of their potassium content but also because it will be healthier and more satiating.
Potassium, together with sodium and magnesium, is an electrolyte that is absolutely essential for your well-being, health and the normal functioning of your body.
It participates in a number of important processes, and getting enough of it is even more important if you’re doing low-carb or keto, as both of these diets have a diuretic effect (meaning, you’ll be losing electrolytes faster than usual).
In order to get enough of it, the best strategy is to include plenty of potassium-rich foods in your diet, and eventually to use a salt substitute together with regular table salt (for example, Nu-Salt or a similar one).
The symptoms of a potassium deficiency are no joke, so you definitely want to make sure you’re having plenty of it each day (4,700 mg/daily is the recommended intake).
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