Running Low: The Dangers of Low Potassium Levels

By: 
True You
September 9, 2021

If you have ever experienced the unique agony of a muscle cramp while playing a sport or going for a run, you know how painful and memorable such an event can be. People often attribute muscle cramps to not drinking enough fluids, but there is more to the story. Though dehydration is part of the picture, what is actually occurring is likely a condition called hypokalemia, the medical name for potassium deficiency. 

What Can Happen if Your Potassium Levels are Too Low?

Potassium, also known as vitamin K, is an important electrolyte that your body needs to stay alive and functioning. Electrolytes are minerals that carry electrical signals that allow your nervous system to do its job. Having an electrolyte imbalance such as low potassium levels or a deficiency in magnesium can have noticeable effects on your health. These effects can range from benign but painful muscle twitches or cramps, but even these should be seen as a worrying sign. If your low potassium levels are not corrected, you could experience constipation or even abnormal heart rhythms, which could be life threatening. 

Treating minor symptoms of hypokalemia such as muscle cramps or fatigue can usually be accomplished by drinking fluids and eating foods that are rich in electrolytes. If you are experiencing symptoms of severe hypokalemia such as an abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia, you should call 911 or seek treatment from a healthcare provider immediately. Abnormal heart rhythms are a serious, life-threatening medical condition that requires immediate treatment.

Some people need to pay more attention to the levels of potassium in their blood than others. People with high blood pressure are at particular risk to the effects of low potassium levels, as they are at an elevated risk of heart disease.  

How Can I Raise My Potassium Level Quickly?

There is a limit to how quickly you can raise your potassium levels based on how much potassium your gastrointestinal tract can absorb. Though potassium supplements exist, your best bet for treating mild cases of low potassium levels is to drink electrolyte fluids and eat potassium-rich foods that can provide you the minerals you need. 

If you have lost enough potassium that you are experiencing disruptions to your heart rhythm, you may be given an intravenous solution to help you get the amount of potassium you need without upsetting your digestive tract. 

It is important to remember that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. While low potassium can put you at risk of arrhythmia, too much potassium in your blood can be a bad thing as well. Hyperkalemia, or high potassium levels, can put you at risk of damage to your heart and even increase your chances of a heart attack. 

Causes of Low Potassium Levels

Causes of hypokalemia can include many different factors. Diuretics, sometimes known as water pills, can cause excess loss of body fluids and the minerals they contain through urine. Another common cause of potassium loss is loss of fluid through illness that results in prolonged periods of diarrhea or vomiting.

Renal conditions can lead to low blood potassium in some cases. While kidney disease is rarely the underlying cause of hypokalemia, rare disorders and adrenal conditions such as Cushing syndrome can elevate levels of aldosterone in the body, causing your kidneys to excrete too much potassium. 

Other causes of hypokalemia include

  • bulimia and other eating disorders
  • alcohol use or abuse
  • extreme sweating with or without exercise
  • abuse or overuse of laxatives

Common Symptoms of Hypokalemia

The side effects of low blood potassium are easy to miss, as they could arise from many different causes. When exercise and excess sweating is the cause of acute loss of potassium, it is easier to identify. If you experience the symptoms of hypokalemia for any length of time, you should seek medical advice. Common symptoms of low potassium include:

  • constipation
  • fatigue
  • muscle weakness, cramps or twitches
  • numbness or tingling

Serious Symptoms of Low Potassium

Severe cases of low potassium can be life threatening. You should seek medical care immediately by calling 911 if you, or someone with you, begins to exhibit these life-threatening symptoms:

  • excessive urination or thirst
  • disorientation or confusion
  • excessive thirst or urination
  • heart palpitations or arrhythmia
  • fainting or severe Lightheadedness
  • paralysis
  • difficulty breathing

Low Potassium and Weight Loss

Low potassium levels are just one example of the dangers of poorly managed weight loss attempts. People who are engaging in unhealthy, even personally harmful activities in an attempt to lose weight or maintain a certain number on the scale, can put themselves at risk of a host of different health problems. Eating disorders like bulimia can rob your body of the nutrients it needs to properly manage everything from digestion to your heart rhythm, all things that are necessary to keep you healthy enough to manage your weight in a safe and sustainable way. 

One group of people who are at significant risk of the dangers of low potassium are people who have undergone a gastric bypass surgery or other bariatric procedure. Due to the severe constriction in the size of the stomach following one of these surgeries, it is difficult to get the nutrients your body needs. What is perhaps more dangerous is the threat of dehydration, particularly if any form of exercise is a part of your weight loss program going forward. Even moderate exertion can cause you to sweat, and after a bariatric surgery, your new smaller stomach may not allow you to take in enough fluids to replace the electrolytes lost in your sweat. 

Electrolyte imbalances such as low levels of potassium and magnesium can affect digestion and gut motility, which is also a significant concern for people who have undergone weight loss surgery. The balance of nutrient absorption and proper gut health is very delicate for post-operative bariatric surgery patients. Dumping, a condition where severe diarrhea arises if proper diet and nutrition are not maintained, can cause severe dehydration. This dehydration would normally not be a problem, but as mentioned above, the smaller size of your stomach after surgery will make it difficult for you to gain back the minerals you have lost. This is further complicated by the fact that there is a limited amount of potassium your gut can absorb at any given time. 

At True You Weight Loss, we know the dangers and challenges that can accompany traditional weight loss surgeries and the life-long changes they make to your body. While it is possible for you to lose dramatic amounts of weight, the potential dangers are very real. This is why the services we offer from medical nutrition therapy to endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty are designed to serve the widest possible range of people. Everyone has different goals and different circumstances, so finding the right service or procedure that fits your goals can make all the difference in achieving the freedom of lasting weight loss.

If you have been thinking about a weight loss procedure or gastric bypass surgery, getting the right medical advice is always the first step. Any weight loss procedure carries some risk, takes a lot of planning and preparation, and will have a significant impact on the rest of your life. It is important to have the right team around you to make the changes you want to make in your life. To learn more about True You Weight Loss, request a consultation today.

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