Potassium is an important electrolyte and the third most abundant mineral in the body. Potassium is the main compound that interacts with sodium to perform a number of important functions every single day, especially balancing fluids and mineral levels within the body. It’s why having low potassium levels can be so dangerous.
Potassium is found within all cells of the body and its levels are controlled by the kidneys. It’s needed for numerous cellular functions, including regulating heartbeat rhythms and nerve impulses, allowing muscles to contract, preventing muscle aches, supporting digestive health and boosting energy levels.
What Are the Risks of Low Potassium?
Unfortunately, many children and adults in the U.S and other developed nations are suffering from low potassium. The USDA estimates that dietary intake of potassium by all groups in the U.S. is lower than the daily recommended amount.
In fact, many adults don’t even get half of the potassium they need! According to USDA surveys, the median intake of potassium by adults in the U.S is approximately 2.8 to 3.3 grams per day for men and 2.2 to 2.4 grams per day for women, yet the recommended daily amount is 4.7 grams day. (1)
Luckily, it’s possible to prevent low potassium levels and increase your intake naturally from whole, potassium-rich foods. Many foods contain potassium – in fact, almost all meat, fish and unpasteurized, high-quality dairy products provide a high amount of potassium, as do many vegetables, beans and fruits.
People who are most likely to have low potassium levels include:
- Those who take diuretics in order to treat high blood pressure or heart disease
- Anyone who frequently takes laxatives
- Anyone who has recently had an illness that caused vomiting and diarrhea
- Those with certain kidney or adrenal gland disorders
- People with uncontrolled diabetes
- Athletes who exercise for more than 1–2 hours a day
- Anyone on a very low-calorie diet
Moderately low levels of potassium are very common in the general population and usually result in symptoms, including:
- increased blood pressure
- greater risk for heart disease, especially suffering from a stroke
- increased salt/sodium sensitivity
- higher risk of kidney stones
- fatigue and trouble getting good sleep
- poor concentration and memory
- higher risk for diabetes and insulin resistance
- reduced bone formation due to higher levels of calcium being excreted in urine
- muscle weakness and spasms
- joint pain
Very low potassium levels can result in severe potassium deficiency characterized by a condition called hypokalemia. Symptoms of hypokalemia are serious, evenly deadly, and include cardiac arrhythmias, muscle weakness and glucose intolerance. Usually hypokalemia is caused by factors other than not eating enough food rich in potassium, such as complications due to kidney function, diuretic use, or being very sick and losing fluids.
One of the biggest problems with having a low potassium intake is that the body isn’t able to neutralize acids as well. Non-carbonic acids are generated during digestion and metabolism of both plant and animal proteins, including meats, dairy and grains. It’s potassium’s job to balance these acids in order to keep the body at a proper pH, as low potassium can mean the body becomes too acidic. (2)
Fruits and vegetables have built-in acid-neutralizers, but meats, most grains and other animal foods do not. Because the Standard American Diet is high in both animal proteins and grains, but also low in fruits and vegetables, most people build up a high amount of acid in the blood.
The result? Poor digestion, impaired cognitive abilities, frequently feeling tired, lower immunity, poorer heart health and many other potential risks.
Recommended Daily Intake of Potassium
The Food and Nutrition Center of the Institute of Medicine recommends these dietary intakes for potassium: (3)
- Infants 0–12 months: 400–700 milligrams/day
- Children 1–8 years: 3,000–3,800 milligrams/day
- Teens 9–18 years: 4,500–4,700 milligrams/day
- Adults age 19 and older, men and women: 4,700 milligrams/day
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding: 5,100 milligrams/day
Some people may need even more potassium than these numbers, such as athletes who work out for more than one hour most days of the week. Because they have a higher muscle mass and their body relies on effective blood flow to help bring nutrients to the vital organs, bones and broken-down muscle tissue, they usually require larger quantities of potassium-rich foods.
How to Avoid Low Potassium/Potassium Deficiency: Best Food Sources of Potassium
It’s always best to get vitamins and minerals from food sources whenever possible in order to avoid complications of low-quality supplements and make sure the nutrients are completely absorbable. Potassium is often added to processed foods — including cereal grains, breads and some sport drinks — but this isn’t the same kind of potassium found in natural, whole foods.
For example, in processed foods that have been fortified with synthetic potassium, some of the most beneficial compounds of potassium (including conjugate anions) are not as absorbable and effective. These anions are typically needed to buffer bones from the effects of acid, but potassium that’s been added to packaged foods, usually in the form of potassium chloride, does not act as a proper bone buffer.
Luckily, about 85 percent of dietary potassium is absorbed by average, healthy adults. So the problem is likely that people aren’t eating enough whole foods rich in potassium, rather than having trouble actually using the potassium once it enters the body. Always try to obtain enough potassium from the various foods that are also high in many other complimentary nutrients that help to balance potassium.
Here are 12 of the best food sources of potassium:
(Percentages based on the recommended daily value of 4,700 milligrams for adult men and women.)
- White Beans (4) — 1 cup cooked: 1,004 milligrams
- Lima Beans (5) — 1 cup cooked: 955 milligrams
- Avocado (6) — 1 whole: 690 milligrams
- Broccoli (7) — 1 cup cooked: 458 milligrams
- Sweet Potato (8) — 1 medium: 438 milligrams
- Bananas (9) — 1 medium: 422 milligrams
- Salmon (10) — 3 ounces: 416 milligrams
- Peas (11) — 1 cup cooked: 384 milligrams
- Sardines (12) — 1 can/3.75 grams: 365 milligrams
- Grapefruit (13) — 1 whole: 354 milligrams
- Raw Milk (14) — 1 cup: 260 milligrams
- Grass-Fed Beef (15) — 3 ounces: 237 milligrams
7 Health Benefits of Potassium
1. Lowers Blood Pressure and Supports Heart Health
As an electrolyte, potassium helps to control the electrical activity of the heart that regulates blood pressure, circulation and heart beat rhythms. Many studies have found that a diet that is low in potassium but high in sodium foods can be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. (16)
This is because potassium, in combination with other minerals like calcium and magnesium, prevents fluid from building up in cells. A buildup of fluid within cells is what elevates blood pressure and can result in heart palpitations, narrowed arteries, scarring and poor circulation. Low potassium can also contribute to an irregular heartbeats, chest pains and cardiac arrest when the situation becomes worsened over time, so making sure to consume plenty of potassium-rich foods while also limiting excess sodium is important for maintaining heart health, especially into older age. (17)
2. Supports a Healthy Metabolism
Potassium is needed to maintain and even boost your metabolism because it’s partially responsible for breaking down carbohydrates, in the form of glucose, from the foods we eat and turning them into useable energy. Additionally, potassium helps the body to use amino acids in order to form proteins that build muscle.
Following exercise, many athletes choose to consume potassium-rich foods like orange juice, a banana or a potato in order to replace the potassium lost during exercise. Potassium can also help balance minerals within the body that are important for growth and maintenance of both muscles and bones.
3. Prevents Muscle Spasms and Pain
By balancing fluid levels, potassium helps the muscles to relax, so low potassium can result in muscle spasms, cramps and general pains. Because of how it’s used to help breakdown carbs and proteins that muscles rely on for energy and repair, low potassium can also cause a breakdown of muscle mass, fatigue, trouble exercising and can even possibly contribute to weight gain.
4. Helps Maintain Bone Health
Potassium is needed to help protect bones from becoming weak and prone to breaks or fractures. In the body, potassium forms conjugate anions such as citrate that are converted to bicarbonate. Low potassium levels are associated with reduced bicarbonate precursors that are needed to neutralize acids that are present in commonly eaten foods, especially animal proteins.
Sulfuric acids enter the body in the form of the amino acids found in meat, poultry and other high-protein foods. Since low potassium means low levels of bicarbonate precursors, the bones are not properly buffered from the effects of sulfer-acids and can become demineralized, weak and porous when someone’s diet is lacking in potassium. This can increase the risk for osteoporosis and fractures.
5. Supports the Nervous System
Because potassium is involved in thousands of cellular functions day in and day out, it’s crucial for nerve impulses and electrical signaling that brain functions rely on. Deficiency in potassium can cause fatigue, poor concentration, trouble learning and remembering, and mood changes.
In fact, one of the biggest signs of low potassium is “brain fog,” or the inability to focus and keep a clear-headed, upbeat mood.
6. Needed for Proper Digestion
Potassium acts like an electrolyte, helping to balance water, fluid and sodium levels within the digestive tract. Low potassium can contribute to bloating, constipation or abdominal pain in some cases because fluids build up and cause imbalances in minerals.
It’s also partially responsible for balancing the amount of acid in the stomach, healing the gut and keeping the body at the optimal pH level. This allows healthy bacteria to thrive and kill off harmful bacteria that lower immunity.
7. Prevents Kidney Disorders
A higher potassium intake can help lower the risk for kidney stone formation. Studies have shown that people prone to kidney stones usually have diets higher in sodium and lower in potassium.
Low potassium levels are also associated with an increased risk for kidney stones due to the inverse relationship between potassium and calcium. When someone has low potassium levels, an excess amount of calcium is excreted from the body through urine, which must pass through the kidneys. In many instances, kidney stones are actually calcium deposits, so reducing calcium in the urine is one way to fight off painful kidney problems. (18)
Do You Need Potassium Supplements?
Potassium supplements usually aren’t recommended for normal, healthy adults. They are given under certain conditions to people who have disorders that stop them from absorbing potassium effectively, but otherwise it’s advised to get potassium from real food sources first and foremost.
In some cases there is such thing as “too much of a good thing.” High potassium levels can cause complications just like low potassium can. Because potassium balance relies on healthy kidney function, but many people suffer from somewhat impaired kidney function as they age, potassium supplements are sometimes considered dangerous.
People with diabetes, a history of heart failure, taking anti-hypertension drugs and even commonly taking pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen can experience high potassium levels that disrupt mineral balance if they consume potassium supplements regularly.
To be cautious, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits over-the-counter potassium supplements (including multivitamin/mineral pills) to less than 100 milligrams, which is equal to about 2 percent of the recommended 4,700 milligrams a day for adults.
In general, in healthy adults that have normal kidney function, potassium intake from foods alone doesn’t pose much of a risk for negative side effects because excess potassium is excreted in the urine. However, for people who have abnormal kidney function or who take potassium supplements in high doses, negative side effects are possible.
Interactions of Potassium
Too much potassium in the blood is known as hyperkalemia (the opposite of very low potassium levels of hypokalemia). Excessively high potassium can cause dangerous changes to heart rhythms in addition to other risks like blood pressure changes and weakness.
Elderly people and anyone with kidney disorders, diabetes, chronic renal insufficiency, severe heart failure or adrenal insufficiency are more at risk for having high potassium. People with kidney problems, especially those on dialysis, should definitely be careful not to take potassium supplements or even to eat too many potassium-rich foods without speaking with their doctor.
Potassium-Rich Recipe Ideas
Try upping your intake of potassium naturally by making some of these recipes:
Total Time: 60 minutes
- 1-1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel potatoes and cut into strips about 1/2” wide on each side. Place all ingredients in sealable plastic bag and shake until potatoes are completely coated. Spread onto a baking sheet.
- Cook for 30–45 minutes, turning every 10 minutes.
- Transfer immediately to a paper towel-lined plate and serve warm.
Total Time: 15 minutes
- 1 can Alaskan salmon
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 onion, chopped
- 1/4 box of Mary’s Gone Crackers, crumbled
- Place all ingredients into a bowl and mix together. Form into patties. Cook 5 minutes on each side.
Total Time: 2 minutes
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1/3 cup sprouted almond butter
- 1 banana, peeled
- 2 tablespoons cacao powder
- 2 cup ice cubes
- Stevia to taste
- Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until desired consistency is reached.
- Serve immediately.
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