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Disorders Associated With Low Potassium

By Norene Anderson

Potassium is a mineral required by your body for the proper function of all organs, tissues and cells, and it is an electrolyte necessary for the heart to beat properly. In addition, potassium plays a vital role in muscular and digestive activities. Too much potassium is called hyperkalemia; too little potassium is hypokalemia. The amount of sodium and magnesium controls the amount of potassium the body retains.

Cushing's Syndrome

Cushing's syndrome is a disorder caused by elevated levels of the steroid hormone cortisol, the primary stress hormone, which releases glucose into the bloodstream and alters immune system responses. Conditions that can cause too much cortisol leading to Cushing's syndrome include corticosteroid medications, Cushing's disease and tumors of the adrenal gland, lung, thyroid and pancreas, according to MedlinePlus.

Possible symptoms of Cushing's syndrome include obesity above the waist with thin legs and arms, round face, slow growth in children, acne, easy bruising, backache and weak muscles. Blood work may indicate elevated blood sugar and white blood cell counts with low potassium levels. Treatment of Cushing's syndrome depends on the cause and may include decreasing corticosteroid use or surgery to remove the tumor.

Bartter Syndrome

Bartter syndrome is a group of conditions affecting the kidneys in which too much sodium is lost, leading to a rise in aldosterone that makes the kidneys remove too much potassium. Barrter syndrome is a condition that usually occurs in childhood with possible symptoms such as low blood pressure, muscle cramping, growth failure, constipation, increased urination and kidney stones, says the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Treatment for Bartter syndrome includes keeping the potassium levels above 3.5 mEq/L, or milliequivalents per liter, using supplements or a diet rich in potassium. Foods that contain potassium include: all meats; soy products; vegetables such as broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, lima beans and winter squash; fruits such as cantaloupe, prunes, bananas and apricots; and milk and nuts.

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Gitelman's Syndrome

Gitelman's syndrome is a defect that causes the kidneys to eliminate too much potassium, sodium, magnesium and chloride rather than reabsorbing into the bloodstream. This salt-wasting disorder is the result of a defect in the distal tubule of the kidneys.

Low potassium and magnesium levels detected in routine lab work are often the first indication for the doctor to consider Gitelman's syndrome in adults. Pediatric cases often present with symptoms such as muscle weakness, fatigue and cramps, according to The Bartter Site.

Treatment of Gitelman's syndrome includes potassium-sparing diuretics, electrolyte replacement, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and low-dose ACE inhibitors.

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