Potassium plays important roles in muscle contraction, nerve conduction and heart function. Approximately 95 percent of the potassium in a man’s body is located inside of the cells. The remaining 5 percent is dispersed throughout the fluid outside of your cells, including the blood. A deficiency in potassium, known medically as hypokalemia, occurs when the potassium levels in your bloodstream fall below normal.
Hypokalemia is diagnosed by measuring the potassium levels in a sample of blood. Potassium is measured in milliequivalents, or mEq, per liter, which describes the number of potassium ions in a liter of blood that will react in a chemical reaction. Normal blood potassium levels range from 3.6 to 4.8 mEq per liter. If a man’s blood potassium levels fall to 3.5 mEq per liter, he is considered to be deficient in potassium. Potassium levels of 2.5 mEq per liter or lower are considered dangerously low and can be life-threatening.
A man rarely develops a potassium deficiency as a result of inadequate dietary intake of potassium, although it is possible. Most potassium deficiencies occur as a result of long-term use of diuretics, laxatives and steroids. Chronic vomiting and diarrhea also can cause a potassium deficiency in men. Chronic kidney diseases can lead to hypokalemia, as well.
A small decrease in blood potassium levels does not usually result in any symptoms. When potassium levels drop significantly, it can result in abnormal heart rhythms, constipation, fatigue, muscle weakness, muscle spasms and paralysis. Hypokalemia also can lead to rhabdomyolysis, which is the breakdown of muscle fibers. If left untreated, rhabdomyolysis can cause kidney damage.
Oral supplementation of potassium corrects mild potassium deficiency in men. If potassium deficiency is severe, it may require intravenous administration of potassium. If diuretics or the use of medications caused the potassium deficiency, it may be necessary to change the type of medication or medication dosage. If deficiency occurs as a result of chronic vomiting or diarrhea, a man should drink electrolyte replacement fluids to keep potassium levels within normal ranges until vomiting and diarrhea ceases.
The Milton S. Hershey Center, a medical facility at Pennsylvania State University, notes that if you have a disease that impairs kidney function or are taking medications that increase the excretion of potassium, consume enough potassium in your diet. The best sources of potassium include bananas, oranges, tomatoes, spinach, cantaloupe, potatoes, peas and beans.