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What are the Common Lack of Potassium Side Effects?

By Rebecca Harkin
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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The essential mineral potassium is an important tool in maintaining healthy muscle and strong nerve function. Potassium deficiency, or hypokalemia, is typically caused by dehydration, or long-term use of laxative and diuretics. The most common gastrointestinal side effect of potassium deficiency is constipation. The lack of potassium side effects which impact the cardiovascular system are low blood pressure and arrhythmia, an abnormally fast or slow heartbeat. The most common side effect of potassium deficiency on the muscular system is muscle cramping, primarily in the legs.

Although potassium deficiency is often brought on by excessive use of laxatives and diuretics which remove fluids rapidly from the body, one of the most common side effects of low potassium can actually be constipation. After long-term use of laxatives and diuretics, the body can become severely dehydrated as it tries to hold on to water and electrolytes, such as potassium. The normal physiological response is to extract water from waste and cause severe constipation. Rather than increasing fluid intake to alleviate the constipation, many patients further increase laxative use, complicating the problem. This situation can lead to bowel obstruction in extreme cases.

One of the lack of potassium side effects on the cardiovascular system is low blood pressure. Hypokalemia-related low blood pressure is usually due to the use of diuretics or drugs which increase the elimination of urine and result in the loss of both fluid and electrolytes, and decrease blood volume in the body. Lowered blood pressure is a physiological response to decrease blood volume because there is less blood to transport through the blood vessels.

Potassium is essential for muscle contraction and when potassium is in short supply within the body, the result can be impaired muscle contraction. Muscle cramps, predominantly in the legs, are typically the first muscle related lack of potassium side effects that are felt. When hypokalemia becomes more pronounced, the lack of potassium begins to impact electrical conduction in the heart. The irregular electrical conductivity can produce an irregularly fast or slow heartbeat, know as an arrhythmia.

In mild cases of hypokalemia, incorporating more potassium-rich foods will alleviate the lack of potassium side effects. When hypokalemia is more severe, the typical treatment is to take potassium supplements or to receive potassium intravenously. Sometimes diet changes can allow for lower doses of laxatives and diuretics, or diuretics that help the body to hold onto potassium can be used, relieving the side effects of potassium deficiency.

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Discussion Comments
By anon277369 — On Jun 29, 2012

Both of my parents take Furosemide (Lasix), a diuretic. According to their doctor, potassium chloride must be taken with it since it is known to deplete potassium levels. She also has them take periodic blood test to check on the levels too. I would ask your doc about this.

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 17, 2011

It seems to me that treating constipation brought about by a low potassium level with water alone would actually worsen the condition. Drinking more water would soften the stools and ease a bowel movement, but wouldn't that also flush out potassium as you produce more urine?

Then again, maybe if you were severely constipated, the stools would absorb all the extra water that you drank, and it would never reach the bladder to be removed as urine. I guess it depends on your body's individual needs.

I have read that tomato, prune, carrot, and orange juice are all high in potassium. I think that if I had a potassium deficiency and constipation, I would drink a lot of these instead of just water.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 16, 2011

I have struggled with constipation for years. I only used laxatives when I absolutely had to, but even that was too often.

I developed an abnormal heartbeat, so I went to see my doctor. She asked me about my diet, and she found out that I wasn't getting nearly enough potassium.

Rather than give me supplements, she asked if I would be willing to include some high potassium foods in my diet. I agreed to, and she gave me a list of foods that I had never eaten much of before.

After trying a few of them, I discovered that I loved zucchini, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. I had avoided them in the past in favor of fat, greasy foods and sweets, but I noticed after eating them that I felt so much better on the inside.

I now eat mostly fruits and vegetables, and many of these are from my doctor's potassium sources list. I also have discovered halibut, a fish high in potassium. I have never felt better, and I will eat this way the rest of my life.

By cloudel — On Nov 16, 2011

@Oceana - I have noticed that if I go a few days without eating a banana, which is one of the foods high in potassium, I get painful leg cramps at night. That is one fruit that can help you keep potassium in your body.

Other potassium-rich foods include avocados, dark chocolate, raisins, dates, figs, dried herbs like basil, paprika, dill, and chili powder, tuna, salmon, oranges, pumpkin seeds, and many kinds of beans, especially white beans. These all sound delicious to me, and I eat many of them on a daily basis.

I haven't had any more leg cramps since starting my high potassium diet. I also haven't had to use laxatives anymore. Constipation is terribly uncomfortable, and I'm so glad I was able to get rid of it by altering my diet.

By Oceana — On Nov 15, 2011

I'm a little scared after reading this that I may soon be at risk of a potassium deficiency. I'm about to start taking a type of experimental diuretic that is being used to treat polycystic kidney disease, and since it is still in the clinical study phase, not all the effects are known.

The researchers have told me that I will have to urinate a lot more frequently, and I must drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. They warned me that I would become very thirsty.

They also told me that they would be monitoring my heart rhythm on my quarterly visits. They will be giving me an EKG each time, and now I know why. I didn't know that diuretics could cause an abnormal rhythm.

Now I'm worried that I may flush out my potassium along with the fluids. I have had severe leg cramps in the past, and I don't want to experience that again.

Does anyone know what types of food I can start eating to pack my body full of potassium? I want to do everything I can to avoid the side effects.

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