Diabetes & Potassium

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Potassium is an important electrolyte with major effects in diabetes. Whether too much or too little potassium is circulating in your blood can affect your chances of developing diabetes and your risk of complications if you already have the disease. If you don’t have diabetes, eating a balanced, potassium-rich diet may help prevent it. If your diabetes is poorly controlled, however, you may have too much potassium in your blood and need to reduce your intake. It’s important to keep tabs on your potassium levels by regularly consulting your health care provider.

Diabetes in the United States

Diabetes is a group of serious metabolic disorders affecting more than 25 million people in the United States. Diabetic patients have too much blood sugar, caused by problems with the hormone insulin. Insulin is created by your pancreas, and its job is to unlock your cells so blood sugar can get into them and supply energy for all of your body processes. However, diabetics do not produce enough insulin, or they have a problem with the signaling process that determines how insulin works. As a result, a buildup of glucose in the blood occurs, while cells starve from a lack of their natural food source.

Potassium's Role in the Body

Potassium is a mineral and important electrolyte. Electrolytes, which include salt and other minerals, help control your body’s balance of fluids inside and outside of cells and are vital to processes such as muscle contractions, energy generation and many other biochemical reactions. With your cells and kidneys as controllers, your body keeps close tabs on what you eat and what you eliminate to keep the right balance of potassium. Most Americans consume somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 milligrams of potassium each day through their diet. The amount you need, according to the Institute of Medicine, is around 2.3 grams daily, so deficiencies in potassium are rare.

Diabetes and Fluctuating Potassium Levels

Complications of diabetes and the medications prescribed for it can interfere with potassium levels. For example, if you have problems with your kidneys as a diabetic, your potassium can get too high. Your doctor or dietitian may have you cut back on the amount of potassium you consume in food if you have diabetic kidney disease. If you take insulin you may see a fall in potassium levels if your diabetes hasn’t been properly controlled for some time. Others who take medication for blood pressure, a common diabetes complication, may also see a drop in potassium.

Potassium Depletion Increases Diabetes Risk

According to research published in the 2011 issue of “Expert Review of Endocrinology and Metabolism," people who take a form of blood pressure medication called thiazides have an increased risk for diabetes. The medication acts as a diuretic, which causes water and electrolyte loss. Researchers in the study note that a loss of potassium from thiazides increase the risk of developing diabetes. They also state that no matter what reduces your potassium levels, whether drugs or diet, your risk of developing diabetes is increased.

Potassium-Rich Diets Could Prevent Type 2 Diabetes

If you don’t have diabetes, eating foods high in potassium may help ward off the disease, according to research reported in the October 25, 2010 issue of “Archives of Internal Medicine.” Foods high in potassium include bananas, cantaloupe, potatoes with their skin, tomatoes, plums and prunes, spinach and legumes. The authors of the study, also Johns Hopkins researchers, note that potassium stimulates the production of insulin. They were trying to determine whether low potassium levels affected people’s chances of developing diabetes. Those with the highest levels of potassium at the start of the study were 64 percent less likely to develop diabetes. They concluded that the level of potassium in the blood is an independent risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.