Potassium is a mineral crucial for the proper functioning of all cells, tissues and organs.

What are its health benefits?

It’s one of the main blood minerals called electrolytes (the others are sodium and chloride), which means it carries an electrical charge. It prevents calcium from being lost in your urine and protects against kidney stones, as well as helping your body maintain a good pH-balance. It also plays a key role in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction, which ensures normal digestive and muscular function.

When it comes to medical conditions, its benefits may include:

  • Eating foods rich in this mineral may play a role in osteoporosis prevention.
  • Potassium supplements may cause a drop in high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Eating a potassium-rich diet may lower your risk of stroke – however, studies show that supplements don’t appear to ensure the same benefit.

Do you have a deficiency?

Having too much or too little potassium in your body can cause serious health problems. Hyperkalemia is when you have too much potassium in your blood, and having too little is called hypokalemia. Maintaining the right potassium balance depends on the amount of sodium and magnesium that you have in your blood. For example, a potassium deficiency is more likely if you eat a lot of salt, which contains sodium (that increases the need for potassium).

Diarrhoea, vomiting, excessive sweating, malnutrition, malabsorption syndromes (such as Crohn’s disease) and a heart medicine called loop diuretics also deplete potassium stores.

The symptoms of a potassium deficiency (hypokalemia) include:

  • Hypertension
  • Persistent muscle cramps
  • Muscle weakness
  • Disorientation
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Irregular heartbeat

Hypokalemia can be life-threatening so ensure you consult your doctor if you suffer from any of the above symptoms.

Find it in these foods

If you follow a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits, you will get all the potassium you need.

Potassium can be found in the following food sources:

  • Salmon, cod and sardines
  • Soy products
  • Potatoes (especially the skins), including sweet potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocados
  • Broccoli
  • Peas
  • Bananas
  • Citrus fruit
  • Apricots
  • Milk and yoghurt
  • Nuts

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA)

The suggested safe intake for adults is 4.7g and 5.1g for women who are breastfeeding.

First consult your Clicks pharmacist regarding the correct supplementary dosage, particularly for children and if you’re suffering from a medical condition.

People with kidney problems should not eat too many potassium-rich foods.

Know the overdose risks

Potassium supplements can interact adversely with medicines for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, so first speak to your doctor about these drug interactions.

Common side effects from potassium supplements could include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Stomach irritation
  • Nausea

Excessive intake of potassium may lead to hyperkalemia, which may cause dangerous heart rhythms. Other symptoms include fatigue and numbness. Common causes of hyperkalemia include poorly functioning kidneys, heart medicines called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin 2 receptor blockers (ARBs), and severe infection.

Avoid potassium supplements as you enter old age or if you have kidney disease. Impaired kidney function reduces the body’s ability to excrete excess potassium and leads to hyperkalemia.

Ensure you discuss dietary supplementation with your Clicks pharmacist to avoid the potential for side effects and adverse interactions with medications.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by Clicks' pharmacist Waheed Abdurahman in February 2015