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Potassium is an essential mineral that the body requires for proper functioning. It is classified as an electrolyte, meaning it carries an electric charge when dissolved in bodily fluids.

Potassium is involved in numerous physiological processes including maintaining fluid balance, regulating blood pressure, transmitting nerve impulses, and contracting muscles. It also plays a vital role in supporting heart function and controlling the acid-base balance.

From regulating fluid balance to supporting nerve transmission and muscle function, potassium is indispensable for overall health. Understanding the importance of potassium and knowing how to maintain optimal levels is essential for promoting well-being and preventing health complications.

Definition and Function

Definition of Potassium: What is Potassium? [5., 7., 11., 12.]

Potassium is an electrolyte and a crucial intracellular cation.  It plays a vital role in maintaining cell function, regulating intracellular fluid volume, and establishing transmembrane electrochemical gradients. 

Potassium (K+) is predominantly found within cells, with only a small portion circulating in extracellular fluids. This distribution is maintained by the Na-K ATPase pump on cell membranes, which establishes a gradient between intracellular and extracellular compartments. 

Despite ingesting K+, plasma levels remain relatively stable due to cellular storage reservoirs, including muscle and liver. Internal homeostasis, regulated by hormones like insulin and catecholamines, ensures constant plasma K+ levels by controlling cellular uptake. 

Externally, the kidneys play a crucial role in K+ balance, excreting the majority of ingested K+ while stools eliminate a smaller portion

Primarily absorbed in the small intestine through passive diffusion, potassium is predominantly excreted in urine, with smaller amounts lost in stool and sweat. The kidneys tightly control potassium excretion, adjusting it in response to dietary intake changes. 

Aldosterone plays a key role in enhancing potassium secretion in the kidney's connecting segments and collecting ducts via the mineralocorticoid receptor (NR3C2). Activation of this receptor stimulates the expression of the sodium/potassium exchanging ATPase, crucial for potassium balance. 

The renin-angiotensin system maintains aldosterone levels, linking them to blood potassium concentration. Licorice's glycyrrhizic acid increases potassium loss by inhibiting renal 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2, hindering cortisol conversion to cortisone, which normally activates the mineralocorticoid receptor. 

Catecholamines and insulin facilitate potassium redistribution into liver and skeletal muscles.

Normal serum potassium concentrations range from 3.6 to 5.0 mmol/L, with deviations potentially indicating health issues like hypokalemia or hyperkalemia, particularly in conditions such as diarrhea, kidney disease, or medication use. 

Although assessing potassium status in clinical practice can be challenging due to its intracellular predominance, maintaining appropriate potassium levels is crucial for various physiological functions, including enzymatic reactions, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, tissue synthesis, and blood pressure regulation.

Functions of Potassium: What Does Potassium Do in the Body?  [7., 11.]

Potassium’s functions as an intracellular cation responsible for maintaining the electrolyte gradient between intercellular and extracellular compartments makes it responsible for many of its functions in human health, which include:

Blood Pressure Regulation: potassium helps to regulate blood pressure by counteracting the effects of sodium, thereby reducing the risk of hypertension.

Cardiovascular Health: adequate potassium intake is associated with a lower risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, and coronary heart disease.

Electrolyte Balance: potassium plays a vital role in maintaining electrolyte balance, which is essential for proper muscle function, including the heart muscle.

Muscle Function: potassium is crucial for normal muscle function, including skeletal, cardiac, and smooth muscle contraction.

Nerve Function: potassium is involved in nerve impulse transmission, supporting proper nerve function throughout the body.

Kidney Health: adequate potassium intake may reduce the risk of kidney stones and support overall kidney health by promoting proper fluid balance and waste removal.

Bone Health: potassium may contribute to bone health by reducing urinary calcium excretion and helping to maintain bone mineral density.

Fluid Balance: potassium helps maintain proper fluid balance in the body by regulating intracellular and extracellular fluid levels.

Acid-Base Balance: potassium plays a role in acid-base balance, helping to maintain the body's pH within a healthy range.

Metabolism: potassium is involved in various metabolic processes, including carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis.

Blood Sugar Regulation: potassium may help regulate blood sugar levels by enhancing insulin sensitivity and promoting glucose uptake into cells.

Digestive Health: potassium-rich foods may support digestive health by promoting proper muscle function in the gastrointestinal tract.

Reduced Risk of Osteoporosis: adequate potassium intake may be associated with a reduced risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.

Improved Exercise Performance: potassium may help improve exercise performance by supporting proper muscle function and reducing the risk of muscle cramps and fatigue.

Dietary Sources of Potassium  [7.]

Animal-Based Sources of Potassium:

  • Chicken breast, boneless, grilled, 3 ounces: 332 mg
  • Salmon, Atlantic, farmed, cooked, 3 ounces: 326 mg
  • Beef, top sirloin, grilled, 3 ounces: 315 mg
  • Yogurt, fruit variety, nonfat, 6 ounces: 330 mg
  • Yogurt, Greek, plain, nonfat, 6 ounces: 240 mg
  • Turkey breast, roasted, 3 ounces: 212 mg
  • Tuna, light, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces: 153 mg
  • Cheese, mozzarella, part skim, 1½ ounces: 36 mg
  • Egg, 1 large: 69 mg

Plant-Based Sources of Potassium:

  • Apricots, dried, ½ cup: 755 mg
  • Lentils, cooked, 1 cup: 731 mg
  • Squash, acorn, mashed, 1 cup: 644 mg
  • Prunes, dried, ½ cup: 635 mg
  • Raisins, ½ cup: 618 mg
  • Potato, baked, flesh only, 1 medium: 610 mg
  • Kidney beans, canned, 1 cup: 607 mg
  • Orange juice, 1 cup: 496 mg
  • Soybeans, mature seeds, boiled, ½ cup: 443 mg
  • Banana, 1 medium: 422 mg
  • Spinach, raw, 2 cups: 334 mg
  • Broccoli, cooked, chopped, ½ cup: 229 mg
  • Cantaloupe, cubed, ½ cup: 214 mg
  • Asparagus, cooked, ½ cup: 202 mg
  • Tomato, raw, 1 medium: 292 mg

Recommended Intake And Supplementation

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of Potassium/How Much Potassium Should I Get?  [7.]

The RDA of potassium for adult men is 3400 mg, and for adult women the RDA is 2600 mg.  In pregnancy the RDA increases to 2900 mg daily, and it is 2800 mg for lactating women.

Indications for Potassium Supplementation  [2.]

This question should be discussed with a licensed healthcare provider who can recommend individualized testing and a supplementation plan, as well as long-term monitoring.   

Potassium deficiency is also called hypokalemia, and it is one of the most common electrolyte imbalances.  

Symptoms of hypokalemia may include: 

  • Muscle weakness, especially in the lower extremities, progressing to involve the trunk and upper extremities
  • Respiratory muscle weakness leading to potential respiratory failure
  • Gastrointestinal manifestations such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal distension, and ileus
  • Muscle cramps, rhabdomyolysis, and myoglobinuria
  • Periodic paralysis, a rare neuromuscular disorder characterized by episodes of muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Cardiac dysrhythmias, including T-wave flattening, ST depression, appearance of U wave, prolonged PR and QT intervals
  • Increased risk of arrhythmias, particularly in older patients, those with heart disease, and those receiving digoxin or antiarrhythmic drugs
  • Risk of dysrhythmias and impaired cardiac contractility during anesthesia, particularly with acute hypokalemia
  • Exacerbation of hypokalemia by concurrent hypomagnesemia, increasing the risk of torsades de pointes and urinary potassium losses
  • Renal structural and functional changes, including impaired concentrating ability and altered sodium and bicarbonate handling
  • Glucose intolerance due to reduced insulin secretion as a consequence of prolonged hypokalemia

Lab Testing for Potassium

Lab Testing and Sample Type

Potassium can be easily assessed as part of a common blood test panel called a comprehensive metabolic panel.  

Urine tests are also available to assess the amount of potassium excreted in the urine.  

Preparation for Lab Testing

This test commonly requires a venipuncture.  Fasting is typically required.  

Urine testing requires a urine sample, and may require 24 hour collection.

Interpreting Test Results

Reference Range for Potassium

The Reference Range for potassium testing will depend on the sample type and lab company used.  It is essential to consult with the ordering lab company for their recommended reference ranges and interpretation.  

Typical reference ranges for serum potassium are given as:  [8.]

Adult/elderly: 3.5-5.0 mEq/L or 3.5-5.0 mmol/L (SI units)

Child: 3.4-4.7 mEq/L

Infant: 4.1-5.3 mEq/L

Newborn: 3.9-5.9 mEq/L

Clinical Significance of High Levels of Potassium  [10.]

High potassium, or hyperkalemia, is characterized by elevated levels of potassium in the blood, typically defined as serum potassium concentrations exceeding 5.0 mmol/L. 

This electrolyte disturbance can arise from various causes including impaired renal function, excessive potassium intake, or shifts of potassium from cells into the bloodstream. 

Clinically, hyperkalemia can manifest with a range of symptoms, from mild to severe.  Symptoms may include palpitations, muscle weakness, and paralysis. 

In severe cases, hyperkalemia poses a significant risk of life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias, necessitating prompt medical intervention to stabilize potassium levels and mitigate potential complications.

Common causes of hyperkalemia include:  [9., 10.]

  • Acute kidney injury
  • Addison's disease
  • Blood transfusion
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Dehydration (can cause hypo- or hyperkalemia)
  • Eating disorders (Anorexia, bulimia)
  • Excessive potassium intake (Dietary or intravenous)
  • Hemolytic anemia (red cell destruction)
  • Hypoaldosteronism
  • Infection
  • Medications (Renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) inhibitors, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), beta blockers, calcineurin inhibitors, heparin)
  • Pseudohypoaldosteronism
  • Tissue injury including rhabdomyolysis, crush injury, excessive exercise, or major trauma

Clinical Significance of Low Levels of Potassium  [2.]

Hypokalemia is a condition characterized by abnormally low levels of potassium in the blood, typically defined as serum potassium concentrations below 3.5 mmol/L. 

This electrolyte imbalance can result from various factors including inadequate dietary intake, excessive potassium loss through urine or the gastrointestinal tract, or shifts of potassium from the bloodstream into cells. 

Clinically, hypokalemia can present with a spectrum of symptoms ranging from mild muscle weakness and fatigue to severe manifestations such as paralysis and life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias. 

Prompt recognition and management of hypokalemia are crucial to prevent complications and restore potassium balance in affected individuals.

Common causes of hypokalemia include:  [2., 9.]

  • Acetaminophen overdose
  • Deficient potassium intake
  • Dehydration (can cause hypo- or hyperkalemia)
  • Diarrhea
  • Hyperaldosteronism
  • Hypokalemia
  • Increased potassium loss (skin, gastrointestinal, and renal losses)
  • Magnesium deficiency
  • Use of diuretics
  • Vomiting

Natural Ways to Optimize Potassium Levels

  • Consume potassium-rich foods such as bananas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados, beans, and lentils.
  • Incorporate fruits like oranges, kiwis, apricots, and cantaloupes into your diet.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables such as broccoli, tomatoes, squash, and asparagus.
  • Include nuts and seeds like almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds in your meals.
  • Choose dairy products like yogurt and milk as additional sources of potassium.
  • Opt for whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking an adequate amount of water, as dehydration can lead to hypo- or hyperkalemia.  
  • Limit excessive intake of caffeine and alcohol, as these can increase potassium excretion.  [3., 4.]
  • Consider cooking methods that preserve potassium content, such as steaming or baking, rather than frying or boiling.  [1.] 

Order Potassium Testing 

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Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that plays a crucial role in keeping your body's cells, tissues, and organs working properly. It is especially important for the healthy functioning of your heart and nerves. Potassium helps with nerve signal transmission, muscle contractions, and maintaining the balance of fluids in your body. It also assists in transporting nutrients into cells and supports the kidneys in getting rid of waste. You can usually get potassium from foods like bananas, avocados, and potatoes. Your body carefully manages potassium levels to make sure all its systems work together smoothly.
If Your Levels Are High
High potassium levels, also known as hyperkalemia, could be a sign that something is affecting your body's ability to balance potassium properly. This might happen if you're eating too many potassium-rich foods like bananas, avocados, and potatoes, or if you're taking certain medications that impact potassium levels, such as some blood pressure medications or diuretics. Sometimes, health issues like chronic kidney disease can also cause high potassium levels, since your kidneys play a key role in managing potassium in your body. It's important to remember that while potassium is essential for your body to function well, having too much can disrupt the balance of electrolytes and affect important systems like your heart and nerves.
Symptoms of High Levels
Symptoms of high levels of potassium could include fatigue, weakness, numbness, or tingling sensations. More severe signs might involve irregular heart rhythms or palpitations.
If Your Levels are Low
Low potassium levels might mean that your body isn't getting enough of this important mineral from the foods you eat, or it could be losing too much potassium due to things like sweating a lot, having ongoing diarrhea, or taking certain medications such as water pills (diuretics). This situation, called hypokalemia, can mess with how well your body's cells, tissues, and organs work, especially your heart and nerves. It can also throw off the balance of other minerals in your body, which are really important for keeping you healthy overall.
Symptoms of Low Levels
Symptoms of low levels of potassium could include fatigue, muscle weakness, irregular heartbeat, and constipation.
See References

[1.] Batista RAB, Japur CC, Prestes IV, Fortunato Silva J, Cavanha M, das Graças Pena G. Potassium reduction in food by preparation technique for the dietetic management of patients with chronic kidney disease: a review. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2021 Aug;34(4):736-746. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12846. Epub 2021 Jan 26. PMID: 33497513. 

[2.] Castro D, Sharma S. Hypokalemia. [Updated 2023 Mar 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:

[3.] Elisaf M, Liberopoulos E, Bairaktari E, Siamopoulos K. Hypokalaemia in alcoholic patients. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2002 Mar;21(1):73-6. doi: 10.1080/09595230220119282a. PMID: 12189007. 

[4.] Han, M.J., Kim, SH., Shin, Jh. et al. Caffeine-induced hypokalemia: a case report. BMC Nephrol 22, 260 (2021). 

[5.] Kohlmeier M. Potassium. Elsevier eBooks. Published online January 1, 2003:655-660. doi:

[6.] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Food and Nutrition Board; Committee to Review the Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium; Oria M, Harrison M, Stallings VA, editors. Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2019 Mar 5. 4, Potassium: Dietary Reference Intakes for Adequacy. Available from: 

[7.] National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements - Potassium. Published June 2, 2022. 

[8.] Pagana KD, Pagana TJ, Pagana TN. Mosby’s Diagnostic & Laboratory Test Reference. 14th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Elsevier; 2019

[9.] Potassium: Reference Range, Interpretation, Collection and Panels. eMedicine. Published online March 4, 2020. 

[10.] Simon LV, Hashmi MF, Farrell MW. Hyperkalemia. [Updated 2023 Sep 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: 

[11.] Sur M, Mohiuddin SS. Potassium. [Updated 2022 Dec 19]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:

[12.] Zacchia M, Abategiovanni ML, Stratigis S, Capasso G. Potassium: From Physiology to Clinical Implications. Kidney Dis (Basel). 2016 Jun;2(2):72-9. doi: 10.1159/000446268. Epub 2016 May 26. PMID: 27536695; PMCID: PMC4947686. 

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