Potassium Need

Potassium Need: Overview

Potassium is a mineral that is required in significant amounts for human health.  Potassium balances sodium in the body to regulate hydration.

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Functions of Potassium:

  • Regulation of pressure between the inside and outside of cells.  With inadequate potassium, cellular wastes are not efficiently transported into the extracellular spaces and carried away.  Toxic material is left to accumulate in the cell can cause premature cell death.
  • Conversion of blood sugar into glycogen for storage in the liver and muscles.  Inadequate glycogen storage leads to physical and mental fatigue.
  • Maintaining proper pH balance of blood.
  • Maintaining proper body water balance
  • Stimulating insulin production
  • Maintaining digestive enzyme function and efficiency
  • Maintaining optimal nerve and muscle function
  • Relaxing muscle contraction in balance to calcium, which induces contraction.

Causes and Development; Contributing Risk Factors

The average American diet contains from 3 to 7gm per day of sodium but only 2gm of potassium.  This is almost the exact opposite of that which may be optimal.  A desirable potassium intake per day is 6 to 9gm from food sources.

Maintaining a dietary sodium-to-potassium ratio of at least 1:4 can protect against hypertension, crippling strokes and premature death.  Eating foods high in potassium and low in sodium can also help prevent kidney disease and heart problems caused by hypertension.  Furthermore, a high potassium diet reduces risk of stroke and premature death – even if blood pressure doesn't fall.

Potassium works synergistically with sodium in the body.  However, our typical intake of potassium versus sodium is all wrong.  Researchers recommend at least 5 times more potassium than sodium.  Unfortunately, most Americans eat so much salt that they reverse the ratio with two times as much sodium as potassium.  Added salt is 95% of our dietary sodium.

The body expects abundant potassium and less sodium.  Healthy kidneys regulate the potassium/sodium balance by excreting potassium.

Potassium loss is increased by excessive fluid loss from sweating, urination (diuretics), diarrhea (laxatives) or the use of aspirin and some other drugs.

Licorice root used in large quantities will increase the excretion of potassium.  If licorice needs to be used for a long time, consider deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) or potassium supplements.

Elderly individuals are more likely to be deficient in potassium.  So are those taking certain cardiac drugs, diabetics, those with Cushing's disease, and those who use too much caffeine or have liver disease.

Diagnosis and Tests

Testing Potassium Levels. The body stores potassium in the cells and uses the blood serum mostly for potassium transport.  By the time the blood level of potassium starts to drop you are in serious trouble.  Serum levels are a fair indicator of potassium status, but the best indicator of intracellular potassium is RBC (red blood cell) potassium.


Deficiency can lead to

  • Lactic acid (and other waste metabolites) buildup in body, which leads to

    • Muscular weakness
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • Paralysis
  • Problems in nerve conduction, which leads to

    • Mental confusion
    • Heart disturbances
    • Problems with muscle contraction

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Potassium Need:

Symptoms - Aging

(Greatly) reduced skin elasticity

Skin elasticity is an indicator of potassium levels.  The skin on the back of one's hand, when pinched, should snap back like a fresh rubber band; if there is not enough potassium or too much sodium then the tissues will start to harden and return to their resting position more slowly.

Conditions that suggest Potassium Need:


Aneurysm / Rupture

Increased potassium produces a reduction in aneurysms.  Potassium is known to be the activator for several enzyme systems.  Since only minute amounts are needed for most of them, there could never be a deficiency which would inactivate the majority of them.  However, it may be that part of the weakened connective tissue is an indirect effect of a continuing potassium deficiency on the copper metabolism, especially as it pertains to the copper catalyzed enzyme lysyl oxidase.

A low incidence of cerebrovascular disease was associated with geographical regions where fresh fruit and vegetable consumption (increased potassium) was high.  It is possible that this association may also extend to aneurysms and subarachnoid hemorrhage in addition to stroke. [Low fruits and vegetables, high-meat diet increase cerebrovascular event risk. Medical Tribune March 10, 1997:26; N Engl J Med 316( 5): pp.235-40, 1987; Lancet: pp.1191-3, 1983]


Gestational Diabetes Tendency

By impairing pancreatic insulin production, potassium deficiency may increase the tendency towards hyperglycemia in cases of gestational diabetes. [J Am Coll Nutr 15(1): pp.14-20, 1996]

Organ Health

Kidney Stones (Urolithiasis)

When potassium levels fall too low, urine citrate also drops, decreasing your protection against stones.

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Risk factors for Potassium Need:



Diarrhea causes additional fluid loss and can result in potassium depletion.


Laxative/Enema Overuse

Potassium loss can occur in cases of laxative or enema overuse.

Symptoms - Food - General

Long-term/short-term low-carb dieting or discontinued low-carb diet

According to Dr. Atkins himself, some people lose so much potassium they may need professional help.  According to Atkins, sales of potassium supplements "of anywhere near the proper amount of potassium you may need are illegal over the counter; therefore you may need a doctor to write you the proper prescription." [Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution 3rd edition. M. Evans and Company, Inc. 2002]

Symptoms - Food - Intake

Potassium Need suggests the following may be present:


Recommendations for Potassium Need:


Increased Fruit/Vegetable Consumption

A fresh fruit and vegetable diet has about a hundred times more potassium than sodium.



Potassium levels depend upon adequate magnesium.  Without magnesium, your cells cannot retain potassium.

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