Hypokalemia

Hypokalemia is a condition caused by metabolic imbalance and is distinguished by abnormally low levels of potassium in the blood stream. In fact, this is a symptom of any other health condition or disease and may even be attributed to the adverse effects of taking diuretic drugs. Potassium is essential for our body for muscle contraction (including the muscles of the heart). This nutrient is also necessary for the proper functioning of several complex proteins (enzymes).

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In our body, potassium is mainly present in the bones and skeletal muscles. Together with sodium, potassium helps to maintain the normal flow of fluids inside the cells of our body. The kidneys regulate the normal levels of potassium in the body by eliminating the excessive amount via urine. When your kidneys are functioning optimally, it is a sign that you are taking adequate amounts of potassium through your diet. In other words, your potassium intake is just right for the body to use for the requisite functions. If there is any excessive amount of potassium in your body, the kidneys get rid of them effectively via urine and perspiration.

In addition to the kidneys, body chemicals and hormones like aldosterone also regulate the amount of potassium in the body. Ingested foods stimulate secretion of the hormone insulin, which also prevents hypokalemia induced by diet. Insulin works by enhancing the ability of the cells of our body to absorb potassium. When one is suffering from hypokalemia, an imbalance occurs in the body owing to disruption in this usual process. On the other hand, the imbalance may also occur owing to huge loss of nutrients, including potassium, through urine and perspiration without them being replaced adequately.

The medical term hypokalemia denotes an abnormally low potassium level in the body. This condition can develop owing to a number of reasons. Often, people suffer from hypokalemia owing to side effects of various ailments that involve too much fluid loss from the body. In nearly all cases, it is possible to cure mild or moderate hypokalemia by taking a healthy and well balanced diet. However, in serious cases, people with hypokalemia may need intravenous administration of medications with a view to reinstate the normal potassium levels in the body.

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It is worth mentioning here that potassium is among the most crucial nutrients required by our body. This nutrient helps to control the nerve and muscle activity, thereby ensuring the health of the skeleton as well as the muscles, in addition to facilitating speedy recuperation following any physical stress. When a person is healthy, he ought to get most of or the entire potassium required by his body by consuming healthy foods, mainly green leafy vegetables like spinach as well as bananas, pineapples, and avocados. Even milk provides plenty of potassium to our body. In case you are enduring hypokalemia and have not suffered from any ailment or used a diuretic medications, it is likely that your condition has been caused by taking inappropriate diet.

When one's body loses excessive or abnormal amounts of fluids, as in the case of diarrhea or vomiting, it results in the elimination of several vital nutrients from the body. It is worth mentioning here that post-surgical patients as well as individuals who have just recovered from an ailment are very likely to be vulnerable to hypokalemia. In addition, particular antibiotics may also be responsible for low levels of potassium in the body. Hence, it is advisable that you should always try and find out whether the potential side effects of using any prescription or over-the-counter drugs have been responsible for hypokalemia.

This condition may also develop due to specific inherited genetic conditions. People with such conditions are susceptible to low potassium levels in their body. In case the problem is chronic, the sufferer may take potassium supplements to lessen the chances of developing and treating hypokalemia. It has been suggested that Bartter syndrome as well as Cushing 's syndrome have been the potential genetic reasons for hypokalemia.

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If you are suffering from mild hypokalemia, you will be experiencing mild symptoms, which are actually difficult to diagnose. In mild cases of hypokalemia, patients usually experience symptoms like poor controlling abilities of the muscles and muscle fatigue. They may also develop muscular tics. On the other hand, people suffering from severe hypokalemia may experience loss of reflexes, paralysis and even respiratory failure. If you think that you have acute hypokalemia or severe potassium deficiency, you need to check with your physician right away. You need to bear in mind that this condition may lead to several other critical health issues.

Treatment for severe cases of hypokalemia involves intravenous administration of saline solution to the patient, which will help to boost the patient's potassium level quickly. Usually, such patients do not require long-term treatment beyond the possible supplements as well as an enhanced diet rich in potassium. Although hypokalemia is usually a mild condition, there may still be life-threatening complications. Hence, it is important to start treatment as soon as you notice or experience any sign of low potassium levels in your body.

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From the medical point of view, hypokalemia or abnormally low levels of potassium in the body makes the muscles weak. This condition depletes the potassium levels by augmenting the depolarization time from one nerve cell to another. In case, the problem worsens further, the transmission of action message from the nerve cells will go off the deep end. Eventually, this may lead to debility of the muscles in general, as the signals sent out by the nerve cells to the muscles actually do not accomplish the purpose for which they were transmitted.

It has been noticed that people with hypokalemia usually drink more water compared to any healthy person. When a person has very low sodium and potassium in his/ her blood stream, it can automatically result in the patient drinking more water than what is considered to be normal. Drinking excessive amounts of water may result in frequent urinations, which, in turn, can again cause an electrolyte imbalance in the body. Excessive thirst is also accompanied by other symptoms like fatigue and confusion.

Aside from the symptom of intense thirst and drinking excessive water to quench it, hypokalemia may also result in anorexia. This is something strange - akin to two ends of a somewhat large spectrum. While the patient may have an urge to drink excessive amounts of water and, at the same time, he or she may not even have the desire to eat the normal amount of food or the food needed by the body. People having hypokalemia may suffer from anorexia, which, in turn, can again result in low potassium levels in the body. Therefore, this condition can certainly be compared to a double-edged sword.

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In addition to the symptoms discussed above, hypokalemia may also lead to severe motor debility of the hand and legs. This is another common symptom associated with this condition. Nevertheless, hypokalemic paralysis is either caused by a condition called "hypokalemic periodic paralysis" (HPP), an after-effect of elevated potassium levels in the body. On the other hand, HPP can also occur directly owing to non-hypokalemic periodic paralysis, thereby leading to frequent urge to urinate. When one urinates too frequently, it may lead to unnecessary potassium loss from the body. Together, all these symptoms or conditions eventually develop into a force that interferes with the reflexes of the tendons.

Potassium has an extremely vital role in the functioning of the muscles as well as in regulating the fluid flow throughout the body. In fact, potassium is an indispensable mineral owing to its ability to control the flow of body fluid, which helps to prevent constipation. Therefore, now you realize the importance of potassium in our body. Hence, depletion of its level in the blood stream not only disturbs the functioning of our systems, but also makes the muscles weak.

It is, however, unfortunate that majority of us usually commit the mistake of not taking hypokalemia seriously. It is never wise to take this health condition too lightly. Our body requires certain levels of potassium and when this need is not fulfilled, you should not be surprised if your body responds unfavourably. Hence, it is necessary that you do everything possible to prevent this health disorder, especially if you are prone to hypokalemia.

Supplements and herbs

Using herbs and supplements is a wonderful way to treat potassium deficiency. It is worth mentioning here that potassium replacement therapy using supplements or herbal preparations largely depends on the nature as well as seriousness of an individual's symptoms. The treatment only commences after the laboratory tests substantiate that one is suffering from potassium deficiency.

Generally, people suffering from mild or moderately low levels of potassium (anything between 2.5 mmol/ L and 3.5 mmol/ L) and do not experience any symptoms or individuals who only have minor complaints, just need to undergo treatment with potassium pill or potassium in its liquid form. However, some therapeutic preparations or taking supplements and herbs in elevated doses may cause stomach irritation and vomiting.

In case one already has cardiac arrhythmias or is experiencing major symptoms or the level of potassium in the body is below 2.5 mmol/ L, they should be treated with IV potassium. It is advisable that people experiencing any of the problems mentioned here should be admitted to an emergency unit and kept under observation. Potassium replacement therapy is a time consuming treatment and it can often take several hours together. Here is a word of caution - these medications ought to be administered intravenously and very slowly with a view to avoid developing heart problems.

People whose condition is more acute and are suffering from extremely low levels of potassium and symptoms related to hypokalemia should be given IV (drip) potassium as well as oral medicines simultaneously.

If you are suffering from potassium deficiency you should always get the daily recommended intake of this nutrient, which is anything between 2000 mg and 3500 mg. You should get this irrespective of the number of calories you intake every day. It is worth mentioning here that pregnant women and athletes ought to take additional amounts of potassium with a view to keep their blood pressure in check as well as to prevent fatigue. These days more and more elderly people are increasing their potassium intake through their diets in order to keep their blood pressure in check and prevent the chances of developing cardiovascular diseases by consuming excessive salt (sodium).

It is advisable that people who suffer from low levels of potassium or hypokalemia should consume more foods that are rich in potassium content. Potassium is a valuable nutrient that is present in reasonable quantity in nearly all meats, vegetables and fruits. Some fruits like yams, apricots, cantaloupe, citrus fruits, raisins, prunes, watermelons and dates have very high potassium content. Similarly, adding whole grains, milk, asparagus, carrots, potato peels, spinach, broccoli, molasses, sardines and salmon in your diet will help to perk up the levels of potassium in your body. People who eat a healthy and well balanced diet usually have sufficient potassium level in their body.

Additional things you may do

Aside from taking medications and herbal remedies, there are a lot of things that you can do to prevent as well as treat hypokalemia. For instance, you can start using a salt substitute containing potassium chloride. However, before you do that, it is necessary to check with your physician, because salt substitutes may prove to be harmful for some people, especially those suffering from medical conditions like diabetes and kidney disorders. People suffering from poorly functioning kidneys cannot get rid of excessive potassium from their body. When this happens, it may lead to life-threatening conditions, while people with optimally functioning healthy kidneys have not problem in eliminating surplus potassium from their body.

It is possible to treat the symptoms related to low levels of potassium in the body using prescription drugs or over-the-counter (OTC) medications. However, no physician will usually advise you to take non-prescription (OTC) drugs unless you discuss the dosage with them before you start taking the medications. In fact, one may suffer from potassium build up in their body, especially when they try to take foods, supplements or OTC medications to treat their potassium deficiency on their own. If you are suffering from potassium deficiency, it is likely that your physician will advise you to take potassium supplements, as it will help the doctor to check the levels of potassium in your blood stream and keep an eye on any symptoms related to excessive potassium in the body.

As in any other ailment, it is essential to take all the medications prescribed by your doctor or pharmacist regularly and as directed. You may also consult your physician regarding other drugs for checking high blood pressure (hypertension), which would not deplete the level of potassium in your body further. Diuretics or water pills are often advised by doctors to control high blood pressure and these medications work by promoting elimination of excessive salts and fluids from the body. At the same time, these medications may also excrete other essential nutrients from the body - this is a common side effect of taking diuretics.

If you are suffering from potassium deficiency, it is advisable that you give up alcoholic beverages or limit their intake. The same applies to caffeine. Excessive consumption of these two substances can result in electrolyte imbalances. In addition, alcohol also has the potential to augment the side effects of specific drugs that are prescribed to treat hypokalemia.

People with potassium deficiency should never use aspirin and laxatives too much. Both these substances have the potential to disrupt the potassium balance in the body resulting in an uneven heartbeat, muscle debility and muscle pain. When the potassium level in your body is healthy it promotes normal heartbeat and also helps to maintain regular muscle contraction.

If you suspect or are really suffering from potassium deficiency, it is advisable that you check with your physician to start immediate treatment of the issues that are responsible for the condition. Some of the factors that may be responsible for hypokalemia include hyperthyroidism, or familial periodic paralysis - an inherited condition wherein an individual may suffer intermittent attacks of muscle debility and/ or paralysis.

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