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Symptoms and Causes of a Potassium Deficiency

Updated on March 18, 2013

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

Why are potassium levels in the body so important?

Potassium helps us maintain the appropriate electrolyte balance in the body and that, in turn, helps the body maintain the right fluid levels.

Studies have shown that potassium is critical in helping us maintain a normal heartbeat and it may help prevent high blood pressure.


Signs of potassium deficiency or "hypokalemia"

Hypokalemia is the official medical term for a potassium deficiency.

While most symptoms of hypokalemia are mild, they can become serious if potassium levels stay too low. Some signs of a deficiency can include:

  • Muscle cramping (especially after over exertion or working out)
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Feeling light-headed or fainting (blood pressure drop)
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Onset of an abnormal behavior - confusion, hallucinations, delirium

Note: Hypokalemia should not be confused with "Hyperkalemia" which is too much potassium in the body.

Potassium Mini Quiz

Which food has the highest source of potassium?

See results

What causes a deficiency of potassium?

A potassium deficiency can result from a number of medications or medical conditions.

  • Diuretics (a.k.a. water pills)
  • Laxatives
  • Steroids
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rare Kidney Disorders
  • Rare Adrenal Gland Disorders
  • Leukemia

However, on a day-to-day basis, there are several non-medical things that can cause a drop in potassium levels:

  • Physical stress (over-exertion or strenuous exercise)
  • Mental stress
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Sugar

Hyperkalemia vs. hypokalemia

On the flip side, an excess of potassium (also known as "hyperkalemia") in the blood can be just as serious. A hyperkalemic imbalance can be an indicator of an underlying disease or potential heart and kidney problems.

Learn what the symptoms and causes of excess potassium are and find out which foods are the best for maintaining healthy potassium levels on a daily basis here: Symptoms and Causes of High Potassium in Blood

What are the recommended daily dietary potassium intake levels?

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends the following:


  • 0 - 6 months: 0.4 grams per day
  • 7 - 12 months: 0.7 grams per day

Children and Adolescents

  • 1 - 8 years: 3 to 3.8 grams per day
  • 9 - 18 years: 4.5 to 4.7 grams per day


  • Age 19 and older: 4.7 grams per day

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes | Source

Which foods are the best for potassium intake?

If you took the quiz in the side bar above, which of the following did you guess to contain the highest levels of potassium?

A) Yogurt

B) Banana

C) Sweet Potato

The correct answer was “C” – Sweet Potato.

"Eat a banana" is something we hear often for increased potassium intake and bananas are a definitely a common potassium booster for athletes or those who engage in vigorous exercise. However, of the three listed above, a banana actually has the least amount of potassium.

Here is the potassium break down in these three foods:

  1. Sweet Potato (1 medium baked) - 694 mg of potassium and 131 calories
  2. Yogurt (8 oz, non-fat) - 579 mg of potassium and 127 calories
  3. Banana (1 medium) - 422 mg of potassium and 105 calories

So while a banana is a great “grab and go” source, those with ongoing potassium deficiencies or those needing to boost their potassium on a regular basis can opt for foods like the sweet potato that have higher levels of potassium.

Other potassium-rich foods include:

  • Raisins
  • Prunes
  • Lima Beans
  • Regular potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Winter Squash

Are you feeling stressed? Grab some potassium.

While physical and mental stress are often unavoidable, foods and drinks that can cause a potassium deficiency can definitely be avoided.

The next time you are feeling stressed, grab one the above high potassium foods and limit your coffee, alcohol and/or sugar intake!

You'll feel better and your body with thank you.


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    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @BlissfulWriter - thanks for adding in coconut water as a good source!

    • BlissfulWriter profile image


      6 years ago

      Beside bananas, I like getting my potassium from coconut water which has five essential electrolytes including potassium. Although people are familiar with calcium for strong bones, Magnesium and Potassium also plays a role in bone health.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @phdast7 - thanks for stopping by. I hope the sweet potatoes help!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hello Kris- Excellent hub, well-written and visually pleasing. I found it particularly interesting because I have occasionally had leg cramps at night myself. I don't care much for bananas, so sweet potatoes are the choice for me considering how much potassium they contain.

      Nice work. :) Sharing.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @Jools99 - thanks for stopping by:) Enjoy the sweet potatoes!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      I guessed wrong, I said it was a banana. I really like sweet potatoes but we hardly ever eat them so I shall remedy that now that I know they are beneficial..My husband often gets muscle cramps,maybe he needs more potassium.

      Voted up, etc, etc.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @Daisy Mariposa - sounds like a wonderful combination!

      Blackberries are rich in Vitamin C and Vitamin K, and have a decent amount of potassium (1 cup has around 230 mg or 7% RDA).

      I'm looking forward to some fresh blackberries from my garden soon! I planted some thornless ones last year and they are starting to produce fruit!

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


      Thanks for publishing this very informative Hub.

      There's a big difference between non-fat plain yogurt and non-fat flavored yogurt. I was eating some non-fat vanilla Greek yogurt as I was reading your article. Eight ounces has 260 mg of potassium and 200 calories.

      What about blackberries? Are they a good source of potassium? I put some in my yogurt.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @noenhulk - I'm with you, I love potatoes too! There are many ways to "dress them up" so that they are not fattening!

    • noenhulk profile image


      6 years ago

      I love potatoes especially when marinated with chicken. Every member of he family loves to eat them boiled alone with mayonnaise.

    • rsusan profile image

      Rika Susan 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Yes, Kris, it can be hard to get into the habit. But it has now become such a part of our day that I miss my juice if isn't on the daily 'menu' somewhere. I love it! It is well worth the effort and time. Even if you can only manage it every second day to start with, it can be so helpful.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @AliciaC - you are welcome. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy those potassium-rich foods:)

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @rsusan - juicing is a great way to get minerals in. I need to do that myself more regularly. I've got the juicer but can't seem to get into a consistent habit!

      @cherylone - thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion, I'm glad you found it useful!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the information, Kris. Luckily, I like all the potassium sources listed in your quiz - including sweet potatoes - as well as the other foods that you mention!

    • cherylone profile image

      Cheryl Simonds 

      6 years ago from Connecticut

      Great info, thanks for the heads up, I did not know that sweet potatoes were the highest source, I always heard it was bananas. voted up and useful.

    • rsusan profile image

      Rika Susan 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Easy to understand hub about potassium, Kris! Lots of useful info. One thing I have found, is that mineral deficiencies disappeared when we started to do veggie juicing regularly. Of course bananas are better in smoothies, but something like sweet potato can easily be added to a fresh vegetable juice. It really helps! And it tastes yummy!

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @dmop - I first guessed banana too:) I hated sweet potatoes as a kid, but I've finally started liking them as sweet potato fries. We have a restaurant here that makes them as baked "home fries" and a friend got me to try them - I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed them. Maybe it was the combination of spices that they sprinkled on them and the ketchup.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @teaches12345 - sweet potatoes was one of those things that I hated as a kid. I'm finally starting to warm up to them. It's great that you're eating them once a week!

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @rajan jolly - thanks:) I like putting things out there simple and to the point. And thank-you for sharing!

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      @moonlake - thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to hear you are taking potassium every day!

      @gmmurgirl - You are welcome and I'm glad you found this informative!

    • dmop profile image


      6 years ago from Cambridge City, IN

      I found this very interesting, I admit I guessed it was a banana. I don't like sweet potatoes, but I like yogurt and most of the other foods you mentioned. I will have to keep this in mind. I gave you a vote up and useful.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      We have recently started having sweet potatoes once a week. They are so beneficial to health and it's good to know that they provide a good deal of potassium. I enjoyed the read on this topic, well covered.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      6 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Hi Kris, this is a fabulous hub. You have laid it out in very simple language. Thanks for sharing.

      Voted up, useful and shared.

    • gmmurgirl profile image

      G Maria 

      6 years ago from Philippines

      This is a very informative hub on potassium deficiency. I never even knew there could be such. Thanks you! Upped this one definitely.

    • moonlake profile image


      6 years ago from America

      I ended up in the hospital because of potassium deficiency from water pills. Now I take potassium everyday. Very informative hub. Voted Up.


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