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5 Major Signs of Hypokalaemia

Hypokalaemia, also known as potassium deficiency, is on the rise and ultra-processed diets may hold some of the blame for this trend. We’ll be unpacking 5 of the major signs you’ve got a potassium deficiency.

Potassium deficiency is a dangerous condition – after all, potassium is responsible for regulating muscle contractions, managing nerve function and balancing fluid levels. Research shows that not only is the average person’s diet inadequate for reaching the daily potassium intake recommendation, but the rates of hypokalaemia are rising. While most people won’t reach deficient levels of potassium, many of us are failing to reach the ideal amount for optimal health. Despite the importance of potassium for our whole body’s function, many of those relying on highly-processed diets are missing out on potassium-rich foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds.

But it’s worth noting, potassium deficiency can often be caused by a number of factors outside of diet, including the following:

  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Eating disorders
  • Cushing’s syndrome
  • Kidney failure
  • Sweating excessively

Let’s take a look at some of the major signs you’re dealing with a potassium deficiency.

Muscular cramps

Muscle cramps commonly occur when potassium levels are low, and these sudden contractions of the muscles are the result of disrupted signals from the brain. Potassium plays a major role in getting those signals across, so when we’re lacking in this nutrient, things go a little haywire. As potassium helps our muscles contract normally, a deficiency can cause these contractions to be extended, leading to those painful muscle cramps. 


Fatigue is another common sign of a potassium deficiency – in fact, it’s often one of the first signs you’ll get. This is because potassium helps regulate muscle contractions, as we mentioned above, and when our levels are low, we end up with less efficient contractions, leading to physical tiredness. Plus, potassium is important for our bodies to make use of other nutrients, leaving us more susceptible to fatigue. Research shows that insulin may be impaired by low potassium, resulting in high blood sugar levels which then cause – you guessed it – fatigue. On top of these, our bodies have less glucose available for use when we’re dealing with high blood sugars, further sapping energy from our cells, leaving us chronically tired.

Poor digestion

Potassium plays a major role in getting signals from our brain to our digestive muscles, which then result in contraction to ensure our food is digested efficiently. This is why potassium deficiency can interfere with our digestion, potentially resulting in symptoms like constipation, bloating, gas and indigestion. It’s worth noting that constipation is more common with a severe potassium deficiency, so if you’re experiencing this symptom and suspect you’re not getting adequate potassium, it’s worth getting in touch with your doctor.

Breathing difficulties

When we’ve got a potassium deficiency, our lungs might struggle to contract and expand as they should – and this comes down to the role of potassium in our muscle function, including our diaphragm, which is essential for helping our lungs get in that much needed oxygen. Research shows that those with hypokalaemia are at far higher risk of respiratory failure and the requirement of a ventilator for survival than those with adequate levels of potassium.


Tingling is a symptom that can occur with both excess and inadequate levels of potassium, and it’s known as paresthesia. It often affects the arms, legs, hands and feet. This is because of the role of potassium in nerve function and proper signalling, with tingling and numbness resulting from disrupted signals.

Take a look at some of the best sources of potassium to ensure your dietary intake is adequate:

  • Lentils
  • Pumpkin
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli 
  • Beet greens
  • Avocado
  • Bananas

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