Potassium is a mineral that plays a vital role in nerve and muscle function. If you don't have enough potassium in your system — which, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most of us don't — you might experience fatigue and leg cramps. Here's what you need to know.
How to Determine Low Potassium
According to the Mayo Clinic, it's incredibly rare for low potassium levels to cause isolated symptoms of fatigue without other red flags of the deficiency being present. However, if you find that your legs have no energy or that you're feeling tired overall, it's time to get your blood checked.
When doing so, if your doctor finds that you have an abnormally low plasma potassium concentration, they'll let you know that you have hypokalemia (the more scientific term for depleted potassium levels) and suggest ways to supplement to treat this the deficiency.
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According to the Linus Pauling Institute, low potassium levels are most often the result of dehydration associated with prolonged vomiting or frequent episodes of diarrhea, use of some diuretics, forms of kidney disease that can cause lower levels, and metabolic disturbances such as anorexia.
Since potassium levels rise and fall throughout a person's life, it's worth noting that chronic hypokalemia is a most concerning condition. The more often your potassium levels dip too low, the more severe your side effects become.
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According to the Linus Pauling Institute, chronic hypokalemia can come with a side of hypertension and kidney stones, and severe hypokalemia can lead to muscular paralysis, including intestinal paralysis that can lead to bloating and constipation, heart palpitations, and even death.
While you'll potentially notice symptoms of fatigue and leg cramps before that point, it's incredibly important to know just how much potassium you need to consume to stay at a healthy level, and to avoid adverse symptoms altogether.
The Ideal Potassium Intake
Potassium recommendations vary depending on where you look. While there's not one single set dosage, the Linus Pauling Institute suggests an adequate daily dose of potassium at 2,600 milligrams for women and 3,400 milligrams for men.
While there are a few ways to meet these metrics with your daily diet, the best way is to seek the nutrients in whole, natural foods. Some foods that are especially high in potassium include meats, dairy, leafy greens (such as spinach and Brussels sprouts), fruit from vines (like grapes and blackberries), root vegetables (like carrots and potatoes), citrus fruits, and, as many people already know, bananas.
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Consuming these foods regularly will not just help you avoid tired legs symptoms; according to MedLine Plus, it will help build proteins, breakdown and use carbohydrates, maintain normal body growth, and control your acid-base balance.
Risks Associated With Potassium Supplements
If you're unable to add natural sources of potassium into your diet, it's time to turn your attention toward potassium supplements. According to experts at Harvard Health Publishing, you should only take potassium supplements if specifically instructed to do so by your doctor.
Potassium supplements are often prescribed to people who take diuretics which deplete potassium levels in the first place. There are also special cases where other people require extended-release tablets and other forms of potassium supplement. To determine if you're one of those people, be sure to consult your physician.
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Even if you wanted to add potassium supplements into your diet on your own, without a doctor's orders, it'd be difficult to do so. Given the potentially harmful effects of potassium overdose (like heart palpitations and cardiac arrest), the FDA limits OTC supplements to less than 100 milligrams — each just a mere fraction of the overall daily recommended dose.