Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte. It is crucial for your entire body to work normally. It helps nerves and muscles function properly, as well as moving nutrients and waste around cells.
Role of potassium
Potassium is essential for life. It:
- allows your nerves to respond to stimulation and muscles to contract (tighten), including those in your heart
- offsets the effect of sodium (present in salt) in raising your blood pressure
- moves nutrients into cells and waste products out of cells.
Most people get all the potassium they need from their food and drink, but having low or high potassium levels can potentially cause serious problems.
Risk of low potassium levels
If you have abnormally low levels of potassium in your body (known as hypokalaemia), you can:
- feel weak and tired
- get muscle cramps
- be constipated.
An abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) is the most worrying problem of very low potassium levels, especially in someone with heart disease.
You are at risk of developing low potassium, levels if you:
- take diuretic (water) pills
- have vomiting or diarrhoea
- have a very physically demanding job
- live in extremely hot climates
- are a professional athlete
- don’t get enough potassium from your diet.
Risk of high potassium levels
A high potassium level (hyperkalaemia) is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It is usually discovered through blood tests ordered to explain or monitor another condition.
If you have unusually high levels of potassium, you can:
- feel weak and tired
- feel nauseous
- have an abnormal heart rhythm.
If you have symptoms of hyperkalaemia and believe your potassium levels might be high, contact your doctor immediately.
Most people get enough potassium from what they eat. There is plenty of potassium in:
- leafy greens, such as spinach, kale and silverbeet
- vine fruits, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant and pumpkin
- root vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes
- tree fruits, such as avocados, apples, oranges and bananas
- beans and peas
- milk, yoghurt and meat.
The exception is people who take certain types of diuretic. If you take diuretics, discuss this with your doctor.
Potassium supplements are usually needed only by people who take certain types of diuretics.
If you think you may need potassium supplements, talk to your doctors and have your potassium levels checked.