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Test for Potassium Deficiency

author image Elizabeth DiDio
Elizabeth DiDio began her career in 1991. She held research positions at the University of California, Davis, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and Kaiser Permanente while pursuing her science degree. She has written for the "UC AgHealth News" and co-authored articles published in the "Journal of Nutrition" and other scientific publications.
Test for Potassium Deficiency
Pumpkin is one of many vegetables and fruits high in potassium. Photo Credit Steve Zmina/iStock/Getty Images

Potassium is one of six important electrolytes -- sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine and phosphate -- that work together to maintain the right acid-base balance in your body fluids. Sodium and potassium work together to make sure your body has the right water balance, and potassium is necessary for normal activity in the nerve and muscle cells, especially your heart muscle. If you are experiencing symptoms of a deficiency, your doctor will order a blood test and possibly a urine test.

Deficiency Symptoms

Symptoms of a potassium deficiency, according to Medline Plus, might begin with overall body weakness and chronic fatigue. Low potassium levels can cause muscle cramps because there is not enough potassium in your blood to send electrical impulses to make your muscles contract properly. You will experience irregular heartbeats or even rapid heartbeats because the potassium levels are too low to send normal electrical impulses to your heart muscle.

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Blood Test

The amount of potassium in your blood is so small that even a small increase or decrease can cause health problems. Low potassium levels can be caused by medications such as “water pills,” dehydration from excessive vomiting and diarrhea, or a daily diet that does not contain adequate amounts of potassium. The most common test for potassium deficiency is a basic metabolic panel, which involves taking about 1 tbsp. of your blood, indicates Lab Tests Online, which will be tested for potassium and other electrolytes. High potassium levels might be an indication of kidney, adrenal or other diseases, so your doctor might order additional tests.

Blood Test Results

Potassium is measured in millimoles per liter, or mmol/L, and when you get a copy of your basic metabolic panel results, you will see a number for potassium, such as 4.1 mmol/L. Next, you will see a reference range for potassium, such as 3.5 to 5.5 mmol/L, which is where your potassium result should fall, according to Lab Tests Online. If your blood results are slightly higher than the higher number or slightly lower than the lower number, the lab will flag this for your doctor. Your doctor will evaluate the result to determine if it fits your medical condition or if there possibly was an error in the way the blood was collected or processed. Regardless, your doctor might want another potassium test to check your level again.

Urine Test Results

Your doctor also might order a urine test to check for high and low levels of potassium in your bodily fluids. A urine test result can indicate possible health problems, kidney or adrenal gland disease, side effects from certain medications, or potassium deficiencies. According to Lab Tests Online, the urine test involves collecting your urine for 24 hours in a sterile container given to you by the clinical laboratory. A normal range for a healthy person who has adequate amounts of potassium in their daily diet is 25 to 120 milliequivalents per liter per day, according to Medline Plus.

Treatment for Potassium Deficiency

If your potassium levels are low, your doctor might suggest that you increase potassium in your diet. Many fruits, vegetables and beans are high in potassium, according to the USDA nutrient database. Orange, tomato and prune juice are high in potassium. If you like fruit, bananas, plums, raisins, oranges and grapefruits are high in potassium. Pumpkin, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets and spinach are some vegetables high in potassium. Canned refried beans and other canned beans and tomatoes also are good sources of potassium. Stay away from products that contain added salt and sugars.

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