When you are not getting enough potassium, symptoms are often absent. Although technically not symptoms, hypertension and bone loss are two of the most common effects of not getting enough potassium in the diet. High potassium foods are the best preventive for these two problems, as well as for prevention of kidney stones. Because of the type food that high potassium foods are, it is also the best diet for lowering your chance of heart disease and stroke.
Energy loss and fatigue are common symptoms of potassium lack. But fatigue can occur from so many factors that it is not a reliable way to tell if you are lacking potassium. Statistically, though, odds are that at least some of your fatigue is from inadequate potassium intake. Most Americans consume less than half the recommended amount of potassium. So if energy loss is from inadequate potassium intake, it will improve on a diet of high potassium foods.
Sodium and potassium balance each other out. Sodium and potassium are like the yin and yang of our body's fluid system. They influence what is kept in our body and in our cells, and what is thrown out. When we get lots of sodium it tells the kidneys to get rid of sodium. Calcium always accompanies the sodium. So the calcium comes out of the bones, leading to osteoporosis with less dense and more fragile bones, and goes into the urine where it can form the most common kind of kidney stones.
Calcium movement also affects our nerve cell and muscle cells. When a nerve cell fires or a muscle cell contracts (including the heart muscle cells and the smooth muscle cells in the blood vessels), it does so because sodium goes from outside the cell to inside the cell and potassium goes the opposite way.
Calcium runs in with the sodium. However getting the calcium out of the cell is not so easy. The calcium has to be exchanged for sodium. There are several pumps and exchangers in our cell membranes to do this. But if there is too much sodium and not enough potassium, not enough calcium gets pushed out.
If not enough calcium gets out of the cell, the muscle cells do not relax fully. When the smooth muscle cells of our blood vessels do not relax, our blood pressure rises and we become hypertensive. When the muscles of our body, such as those in our neck and back, do not relax, we feel tenser and tire more easily.
So the symptoms are subtle and often unnoticed in the early stages. High blood pressure often is unnoticed until there is a stroke or heart attack. Osteoporosis is often unnoticed until a bone is broken. Fatigue and tiredness can be caused by so many things, that we don't notice how much is due to inadequate potassium.
There are ways to check on whether we are getting enough potassium in our diet. But what you might think is the most obvious – the blood test for potassium – is not the way to check. Potassium is so important that the blood level is kept normal even when our diet is seriously lacking. A normal blood level of potassium is meaningless in terms of diet.
Since high blood pressure is usually without symptoms, you will need to get your blood pressure measured. If blood pressure is high or high normal, lack of potassium in the diet may be the culprit. You can often go to a pharmacy and they will check your blood pressure, or you can get a home blood pressure unit for little money.
If your blood pressure is high or high normal, you may want to try a high potassium diet to see if you can lower it. For those on medication for hypertension, often the dose can be reduced or even eliminated.
For osteoporosis, there is a scan to check bone density. The DEXA scan will check how strong your bones are. This test is usually ordered by your doctor. It can show early bone loss, osteopenia, before there are any symptoms, and before the loss becomes osteoporosis.
Another way for your doctor to check if you are losing too much calcium is by checking the calcium in your urine. This will detect calcium loss even before the bone loss will show up on a DEXA scan.
But the best way to determine if you are getting enough potassium in your diet is to count the potassium and sodium you consume in a day. Keep track of all the food you eat in a day, including the approximate weight of the food items. Then look up the amount of potassium and sodium they contain in the multiple tables here on the website. If you are getting 4700 mg of potassium and less than 1500 mg of sodium, you are eating like the healthiest people on the planet.