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Can Low Potassium Cause Death?

author image Charis Grey
For 15 years, Charis Grey's award-winning work has appeared in film, television, newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. She has worked as a story editor on the CBS drama "Flashpoint" and her work appears bimonthly in "The Driver Magazine." She has a Bachelor of Science in biology and a doctorate in chiropractic medicine from Palmer College.
Can Low Potassium Cause Death?
Sweet potatoes are a good source of potassium. Photo Credit: akiyoko/iStock/Getty Images

Potassium is an essential mineral, meaning that it is necessary for you to consume adequate amounts of it to sustain life. Unlike some biochemical compounds, your body cannot synthesize potassium; you must obtain it through your diet. If you think your potassium is low, do not take high-dosage potassium supplements without your doctor's supervision. Like low potassium, high potassium can also be life-threatening. You're not likely to face such risks if you obtain potassium from the foods you eat. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, no adverse effects have been observed in healthy individuals who obtained high levels of potassium from dietary sources.

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Potassium is not just a mineral -- it’s a mineral that forms ions, or electrically charged particles, when placed in solution. Your body tightly regulates the concentration of potassium in your cells, as well as in the fluid surrounding them. Both potassium and sodium ions carry a positive charge. Potassium is the most prevalent positive ion in your cells, and sodium is the principal ion in the fluid that surrounds them. Ion pumps in the membranes of cells regulate the balance of sodium and potassium in a concentration gradient called the “membrane potential.” Strict maintenance of cellular membrane potential is necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses, the contraction of both voluntary and involuntary muscles and the proper functioning of your heart.

Potassium Deficiency

When the levels of potassium in your blood are abnormally low, you suffer from a condition known as hypokalemia. The adverse effects associated with hypokalemia are related to aberrations in cellular membrane potential and cellular metabolism, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. If your serum potassium declines to hypokalemic levels, you may experience fatigue, muscle cramps, weakness, intestinal paralysis, bloating, constipation and pain in your abdominal region. If hypokalemia is severe, it can impair heart function to a degree that can be life-threatening.

Causes of Low Potassium

In most cases, hypokalemia is not caused by dietary shortfalls. The University of Maryland Medical Center states that most people obtain adequate dietary potassium by eating fruits and vegetables. As you age, however, your ability to absorb nutrients, including potassium, can decline. Low potassium can also result from malabsorption syndromes such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. The use of certain medications, such as thiazide or loop diuretics, corticosteroids, antacids, insulin and laxatives, can also cause potassium levels to decline.

Sources of Potassium

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults should consume 4.7 g of potassium in their diet each day. There are many different foods that you can add to your diet to increase potassium intake. A single baked sweet potato, for instance, provides 20 percent of your daily value of potassium. Regular potatoes provide 17 percent. Beet greens, white beans and non-fat yogurt are other good sources of potassium.

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