What is Hypokalemia?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Hypokalemia is the medical term for lower-than-normal potassium in the body. It has a variety of causes, and often appears as a side effect to illness that involves severe fluid loss. In most cases, mild hypokalemia can be cured with improvement to diet, but severe cases may require intravenous medication to restore the body's potassium levels to normal.

Taking laxatives often can cause a magnesium deficiency, which may contribute to the development of hypokalemia.
Taking laxatives often can cause a magnesium deficiency, which may contribute to the development of hypokalemia.

Potassium is one of the most important substances in your body. By helping to regulate muscle and nerve activity, it keeps your skeleton and muscles healthy and aids in recovery after physical stress. In a healthy person, you should receive most or all of the potassium your body needs through the consumption of healthy foods, primarily leafy green vegetables such as spinach, pineapple, bananas, avocados and even milk. If you are suffering from this condition and have not had a recent illness or taken a diuretic medication, the most likely reason is improper diet.

Bananas can help with hypokalemia.
Bananas can help with hypokalemia.

When fluid is lost in higher than usual quantities, such as through vomiting or diarrhea, many necessary nutrients are flushed out of the body. Post-surgical patients and those who have suffered an illness may be susceptible to hypokalemia. Certain antibiotics may also be a cause of the condition, be sure to check possible side effects of any prescription drugs you are taking to see if they are a possible cause.

Avocados are a good source of potassium.
Avocados are a good source of potassium.

Additionally, certain inherited genetic conditions may pre-dispose you for a low potassium level. If the problem is chronic, potassium supplements may be used to decrease your chances of hypokalemia. Cushing's Syndrome and Bartter Syndrome have both been suggested as possible genetic contributors of the condition.

Spinach is a good source of potassium.
Spinach is a good source of potassium.

In mild cases, symptoms of the condition are usually mild and difficult to diagnose. Patients may experience muscle fatigue or low control of muscle abilities, or may develop muscular tics. In severe cases, people with this condition may experience paralysis, a loss of reflexes, and respiratory failure. If you suspect you are suffering from severe hypokalemia, see a doctor at once, as the condition may cause critical medical issues.

Patients with severe hypokalemia may be given intravenous saline solution to boost their potassium levels.
Patients with severe hypokalemia may be given intravenous saline solution to boost their potassium levels.

For severe cases, a saline solution is often given to patients intravenously, quickly boosting their potassium levels. Long-term treatment is rarely necessary beyond possible supplements and an improved, potassium-rich diet. If the condition is caused by a necessary diuretic medicine, your doctor may be able to switch you to one that spares potassium in the body. While this condition is generally mild, life-threatening complications do exist, and any sign of persistent low potassium should be treated seriously.

Hypokalemia can cause a loss of reflexes.
Hypokalemia can cause a loss of reflexes.
Cushing's Syndrome may be a possible genetic contributor of hypokalemia.
Cushing's Syndrome may be a possible genetic contributor of hypokalemia.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I have a special dessert which is made up of overripe bananas fried in butter served hot, and then placed on top of milk biscuits in a bowl and then pour whipped cream on top. It's really delicious. I also read drinking alcohol can strip the body of potassium, so it is crucial to take heed, to watch your alcohol consumption when out with friends at a public house or wine bar, and remember to eat a nourishing meal in advance, which includes all the fruits and vegetables listed in the article, because you may have signs of hypokalemia due to a poor diet.


I had serious problems with hypokalemia. I was very lethargic, had brain fog, memory problems and panic attack. It was like a living hell to go through all the pain and stress. Luckily, I got IV potassium and I'm now eating a lot of potatoes and bananas every day.


When I was 9 years old, I went to the hospital for severe vomiting and diarrhea. They determined that I had roto virus. I had to be hospitalized for a week to prevent dehydration.

Though they kept the IV in me, I guess that wasn't enough to keep me replenished at the rate I had been losing liquids. After I got out of the hospital, my muscles seemed to be overly tired. I had trouble lifting even small things, and I noticed some involuntary twitches in my legs.

My mom took me to the doctor, who said I had hypokalemia as a result of the virus flushing me of lots of my bodily fluids. He told me what to eat and said I would be fine if I managed my diet.


My doctor told me that hypokalemia can actually cause high blood pressure. He said that potassium is very important for muscle and heart function and fluid balance. I have both of these conditions, and he recommended that I get around 2,000 mg each day of potassium.

In addition to the potassium-rich foods already mentioned in this article, he told me that I should be eating foods like tomatoes, lima beans, cantaloupe, chicken, cod, flounder, and salmon. He also said it would help to drink some type of citrus juice every day.

I love orange juice and mango juice, so I’m going to try those. I had gotten into the habit of stopping for fast food when in a rush, and it seems like I always am. I’m going to have to break that habit to recover from hypokalemia.


@Oceana - I have the same problem with cramps, but mine are in my feet. I know I don't always eat like I should. My diet is poor, I'll admit.

When I went for a checkup, my doctor said I suffered from hypokalemia. He suggested eating bananas, but since I hate their texture, he also said I could eat pineapple daily. That, I can do.

The foot cramps were so severe that some of my toes would curl under while others folded over the top of them. I had to drop to my knees no matter where I was when the cramps occurred. This was embarrassing in public.

I started eating about three slices of fresh pineapple every day for breakfast, and the cramps have gone away. I will definitely continue doing this. It's a delicious way to fight hypokalemia.


Hypokalemia can cause painful leg cramps. I sometimes get these in the middle of the night. I wake up with a pain in my calf that makes me scream out. Massaging it doesn't help, and neither does walking on it.

The best way to avoid leg cramps is to eat a banana every day. The potassium in the banana keeps the pains away. For me, this is absolutely true. If I go a few days without eating a banana, the leg cramps return. If I do eat one a day, then I don't have any pains.


Hypokalemia is pretty uncommon in the general population, but those that have eating disorders are particularly susceptible to this condition, as they often don't get the nutrients they need to survive.

It is not only those that are anorexic or bulimic that can suffer from low potassium levels, but also those who are losing weight and have opted for bariatric surgery.

In cases where an eating related disorder is the root cause of the hypokalemia the doctors can give you a simple IV to boost your potassium levels and save you from some of the more terrible side effects of this condition, such as severe muscle cramps.


If you are worried about suffering from hypokalemia because you feel that you are not getting enough potassium in your diet there are some simple changes you can make to your food intake that can assure you have enough potassium.

Snacking on apricots can be a great option to boost your potassium as a single serving includes as it includes large quantities of this important substance. Drinking carrot juice can also improve your potassium levels quickly and if you love beans and potatoes you are in luck. Most varieties have oodles of potassium, which can help keep you free of hypokalemia.

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