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.