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What Happens to Your Body When You Don't Get Enough Potassium?

By Melodie Anne

If you eat a healthy diet, it’s not likely you'll be deficient in potassium. Just about every type of plant-based food you eat contains potassium, from fruits and vegetables to nuts and seeds. Not getting enough potassium results in a condition called hypokalemia. Some of the symptoms of hypokalemia are obvious, like extreme fatigue, although others might not be noticeable right away.

Heart Flutters

If you have that feeling that your heart is skipping a beat, a condition called arrhythmia, it could be a sign that your potassium is running low. Potassium is a type of electrolyte that works by transporting electricity from cell to cell. But if you don’t get enough potassium, that electrical current may not be as steady, resulting in those heart flutters that you feel. In very severe cases of hypokalemia, heart arrhythmias can cause your heart rhythm to dramatically weaken or become erratic, which can be fatal, the Linus Pauling Institute notes.

Irregular Bowel Movements

Because potassium conducts electricity, part of its role is making your muscles contract and relax. Your intestinal tract is full of muscles that move food and waste through your gut. When your potassium intake is lacking, however, those muscles might not get the power they need to move. As a result, your bowels slow down, resulting in constipation. You may not have a bowel movement for several days, or when you do go to relieve yourself, you could strain and find it difficult to pass a bowel movement.

Muscle Weakness

As hypokalemia kicks in, the balance of fluid throughout your system takes a turn for the worst. Potassium resides primarily inside of cells, going in and out as needed. But when your potassium intake isn’t up to par, the pressure from fluid surrounding cells goes up, making it difficult for cells to do their job and keep that flow of electricity going. You’ll find it difficult to go about your daily functions as your muscles weaken and numbness and tingling begins to affect your arms and legs.

Problems Breathing

Due to potassium’s role in firing up your muscles, you could experience paralysis, completely losing control of your muscle function, if you don’t get adequate potassium. This doesn’t just include muscles you control, like your hand and feet movements. It also includes muscles that run on their own. In some cases, paralysis can affect your lungs, the University of Maryland Medical Center reports. You may find it difficult to breathe, or run out of breath quickly, as your potassium level starts to plummet.

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