Potassium is a mineral that helps the kidneys function normally. It also plays a key role in cardiac, skeletal, and smooth muscle contraction, making it an important nutrient for normal heart, digestive, and muscular function. A diet high in potassium from fruits, vegetables, and legumes is generally recommended for optimum heart health.
Having too much potassium in the blood is called hyperkalemia and having too little in the blood is known as hypokalemia. Proper balance of potassium in the body depends on sodium. Therefore, excessive use of sodium may deplete the body's stores of potassium. Other conditions that can cause potassium deficiency include diarrhea, vomiting, excessive sweating, malnutrition, and use of diuretics. In addition, coffee and alcohol can increase the amount of potassium excreted in the urine. Adequate amounts of magnesium are also needed to maintain normal levels of potassium.
For most people, a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits provides all of the potassium needed. The elderly are at high risk for developing hyperkalemia due to decreased kidney function that often occurs as one ages. Older people should be careful when taking medication that may further affect potassium levels in the body, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and ACE inhibitors (see section on Interactions for additional information). Taking potassium supplements, at any age, should only be done under the guidance of a healthcare provider.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable healthcare provider. In the case of potassium, this is particularly important in the elderly.
Diarrhea and nausea are two common side effects from potassium supplements. Other potential adverse effects include muscle weakness, slowed heart rate, and abnormal heart rhythm.
Excessive amounts of the herb licorice (not licorice candy) and caffeine-containing herbs (such as cola nut, guarana, and possible green and black tea) can lead to loss of potassium.
Potassium must not be used by people with hyperkalemia.
If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use potassium without first talking to your healthcare provider.
Potassium levels may be increased by the following medications:
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs; such as ibuprofen, piroxicam, and sulindac): This interaction is particularly likely to occur in people with decreased kidney function.
ACE inhibitors (such as captopril, enalapril, and lisinopril): This interaction is particularly likely to occur in people who are taking NSAIDs, potassium-sparing diuretics (such as spironolactone, triamterene, or amiloride), or salt substitutes along with the ACE inhibitor. A rise in potassium from ACE inhibitors may also be more likely in people with decreased kidney function and diabetes.
Heparin (used for blood clots)
Cyclosporine (used following a transplant to suppress the immune system)
Trimethoprim (an antibiotic)
Beta-blockers (such as metoprolol and propranolol that are used to treat high blood pressure)
Potassium levels may be decreased by the following medications:
Thiazide diuretics (such as hydrochlorothiazide)
Loop diuretics (such as furosemide and bumetanide)
Theophylline (used for asthma)
Other potential interactions include:
Digoxin : Low blood levels of potassium increase the likelihood of toxic effects from digoxin, a medication used to treat abnormal heart rhythms. Normal levels of potassium should be maintained during digoxin treatment which will be measured and directed by the healthcare provider.
Potassium balance: The balance between too much potassium and, far more often today, too little potassium. Adults should consume at least 4.7 grams of potassium per day to lower blood pressure, blunt the effects of salt, and reduce the risk of kidney stones and bone loss, according to a report in 2004 by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. However, most American women 31 to 50 years old consume no more than half of the recommended amount of potassium, and men's intake is only moderately higher.
The Institute of Medicine found no evidence of chronic excess intakes of potassium in apparently health individuals and therefore established no upper limit (UL) for potassium. As the report noted, humans evolved from ancestors who habitually consumed large amounts of uncultivated plant foods, which provided substantial amounts of potassium. In this setting, the human kidney developed a highly efficient capacity to excrete excess potassium.
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