Potassium is the most abundant electrolyte found in the body. Electrolytes are electrically charged ions that the body needs to function properly. Potassium in present in all cells in the body. The 2004 guidelines of the Institute of Medicine specify a recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 4.7 grams of potassium for adults. Fruits and vegetables are dietary sources of potassium. Salt substitutes also contain high levels of potassium.
Hypokalemia (low levels of potassium in the blood serum) may cause muscle cramps and pain, weakness, and cardiovascular abnormalities. Hypokalemia may be caused by decreased potassium intake, vomiting, burns, dialysis, sweating, various medications orsupplements, and low levels of magnesium. Potassium supplementation is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of hypokalemia.
Hyperkalemia (too much potassium in the blood serum) may cause potentially severe problems to the brain and the neural and cardiovascular systems. Hyperkalemia may be caused by increased potassium intake, decreased potassium excretion, or redistribution of potassium caused by medications or supplements.
There is evidence from human studies that potassium is an effective treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure). There is limited or conflicting evidence for the use of potassium in cardiovascular disease or osteoporosis prevention, heart protection during surgery, or the treatment of alcohol withdrawal, critical illness, dehydration in elderly patients, dentin (teeth) hypersensitivity, diarrhea, edema (swelling), kidney stones, kwashiorkor (malnutrition), myocardial infarction (heart attack), pre-eclampsia (hypertension and other problems during pregnancy), thallium poisoning, rheumatoid arthritis, and stroke. Large-scale, high-quality human trials are needed in these areas.

Related Terms

KCl, KH oxalate, KNO3, monobasic potassium phosphate, potassium acid tartrate, potassium bicarbonate (Effervescent® Potassium, K+Care ET®, K-Effervescent®, K-vescent®), potassium benzoate, potassium bisulfate, potassium bromate, potassium caprate, potassium caprylate, potassium carbonate, potassium caseinate, potassium chloride (Kaon-CL®, Kay Ciel®, K-Dur®, K-Lor®, Klor-Con®, Klotrix®, K-Tab®, Micro-K®), potassium citrate (Cytra-K®, Cytra-K Crystals®, Polycitra-K®, Polycitra-K Crystals®), potassium gluconate (Kaon®), potassium glycerophosphate, potassium hydroxide, potassium hypophosphate, potassium iodate, potassium iodide (Pima®, SSKI®, ThyroShield®), potassium lactate, potassium metabisulfite, potassium myristate, potassium nitrate, potassium oleate, potassium palmitate, potassium permanganate, potassium phosphate (Neutra-Phos®-K), potassium pyrophosphate, potassium salts of fatty acids, potassium sorbate, potassium stearate, potassium sulfate, potassium triphosphate, potassium tripolyphosphate, tribasic potassium phosphate.

evidence table

These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Vitamin and nutrient deficiency (hypokalemia, potassium deficiency) (Grade: A)
Potassium deficiency, or hypokalemia, may occur for various reasons, including decreased potassium intake, increased potassium excretion caused by certain drugs, loss of potassium due to vomiting, or decreased potassium absorption. Potassium is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of hypokalemia.
Hypertension (high blood pressure) (Grade: B)
Information from laboratory experiments and studies performed in humans indicate that increased dietary potassium may decrease diastolic and systolic blood pressure. However, there is some conflicting evidence from other studies. Further research is warranted.
Alcohol withdrawal (Grade: C)
The use of potassium supplementation in alcohol withdrawal to maintain electrolyte levels has been assessed with mixed results. Further trials are warranted.
Cardiovascular disease (prevention) (Grade: C)
It has been reported that the favorable impact of diets rich in fruit and vegetables on heart health may be due to the potassium supplied by these foods. Studies performed in humans have found that a high dietary potassium intake may cause a decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. Further research is warranted.
Critical illness (Grade: C)
Hyperglycemia (increased blood glucose) is a common problem in patients with critical illnesses who are in hospital wards and intensive care units. Hyperglycemia has been reported to increase the risk of mortality and morbidity in hospitals. Tight control of glycemia may improve patient outcomes. The use of glucose, insulin, and potassium (GIK) has been proposed to have several beneficial effects. In studies performed in humans, the results are mixed. Further research is needed.
Dehydration (elderly) (Grade: C)
Dehydration in the elderly is a common and serious condition, due to various factors. Limited evidence in humans suggests that potassium chloride may be used in hypodermoclysis (subcutaneous infusion) to treat dehydration. Further research is warranted.
Dental pain (dentin hypersensitivity) (Grade: C)
Dentin is the layer of tooth between the enamel and the pulp layers. Multiple forms of potassium salts have been studied for their affects on dentin to decrease sensitivity. In humans, potassium-containing therapies have shown mixed results. Further studies are warranted.
Diarrhea (Grade: C)
Many electrolytes are decreased in patients with diarrhea, including potassium. It is common clinical practice to treat diarrhea with oral rehydration solutions that contain potassium and other electrolytes. Rehydration with such solutions has been reported to decrease death in children due to diarrhea.
Edema (Grade: C)
Potassium has been supplemented, in addition to diuretics, in the treatment of edema (swelling) of cardiac origin, with beneficial effects. Further studies are warranted.
Heart protection during surgery (Grade: C)
Cardiac surgery is associated with several risks, including atrial fibrillation. Glucose-insulin-potassium (GIK) therapy may help to decrease the risk of morbidity and mortality associated with atrial fibrillation. In patients undergoing cardiac surgery, GIK has been used with mixed results. Further research is warranted.
Hypercalciuria (high urine calcium levels) (Grade: C)
Hypercalciuria, or high levels of calcium in the urine, may lead to kidney stones. Potassium citrate has an inhibitory activity on calcium oxalate crystallization, aggregation, and agglomeration and has shown benefit in patients at risk of kidney stones. There is evidence that potassium-magnesium citrate is effective at decreasing the recurrence of calcium stones in patients without symptoms. Thiazides and neutral potassium phosphate decreased urinary calcium levels in symptomatic patients. Although the results in this area are promising, further research is needed.
Kwashiorkor (Grade: C)
Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that occurs when there is not enough protein in the diet. Potassium depletion is common and contributes to the high mortality rate associated with kwashiorkor. In children, high potassium supplementation was a beneficial kwashiorkor treatment. Further research is needed.
Myocardial infarction (Grade: C)
The use of glucose-insulin-potassium (GIK) for myocardial infarction (heart attack) has been in practice for over 40 years. In human studies, GIK administration resulted in reduced mortality from myocardial infarction, although further research is needed in this area.
Osteoporosis (prevention) (Grade: C)
In healthy children, a high dietary potassium intake correlated with high bone density. Low dietary potassium intakes are associated with low bone mineral density in premenopausal women and risk of bone loss in postmenopausal women. In women, increasing dietary potassium intake may contribute to a decreased risk of osteoporosis. Further research is needed in this area.
Poisoning (thallium) (Grade: C)
Thallium poisoning occurs in cases of suicide, murder attempt, or accident. Thallium is considered one of the most toxic heavy metals. It enters the potassium distribution pathways and alters a number of potassium-dependent processes. Potassium treatment increases the clearance of thallium by the kidneys but should be used cautiously, due to the risk of neurologic and cardiovascular toxicities.
Pre-eclampsia (Grade: C)
A case control study found that diets high in fiber and potassium are associated with a reduced risk of hypertension, indicating that maternal intake of foods rich in potassium and other nutrients may reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia. Further studies are warranted.
Rheumatoid arthritis (Grade: C)
Patients with rheumatoid arthritis have significantly lower serum potassium concentrations than healthy subjects. Potassium supplementation reduced pain levels in hypokalemic patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Further studies are warranted.
Stroke (Grade: C)
Low potassium intake and low serum potassium are associated with increased stroke mortality. High potassium intake was associated with a decrease in stroke incidence in adults. Further research is required to determine if potassium supplementation would prevent stroke.