Everybody needs potassium to survive.
Potassium is a mineral. It is also an electrolyte. Potassium helps your muscles work, including your heart and stomach. Examples of foods that are high in potassium include:
- Fruits (bananas, citrus fruits)
- Vegetables (potatoes, winter squash)
- Dairy products (milk, cheese).
Some processed foods have potassium in them, but it is not always listed on nutrition labels.
Your body uses the potassium it needs. The extra potassium that your body does not need is supposed to be taken out of your blood by your kidneys. If you have kidney disease, you are at risk for hyperkalemia because your kidneys cannot remove the extra potassium in your blood. Instead of exiting your body in your urine, the extra potassium in your blood travels through your kidneys and back into your bloodstream. Over time, you get more and more potassium in your blood. When you have too much potassium, you have hyperkalemia.
How much potassium do I need?
Having too little or too much potassium in your blood is dangerous. Having either too little or too much potassium can make you feel tired and weak. Having too much potassium can also cause problems with the way your muscles work and the way your heart beats. It can even cause a heart attack.
The only way to know for sure if your potassium level is normal is to have a blood test. The test measures how much potassium is in your blood.
- Your potassium level is normal if it is between 3.7 and 5.2 mEq/L.
Your doctor might use slightly different minimum and maximum numbers. Talk to your doctor about what your own test results mean.
How can I prevent hyperkalemia?
You can help prevent hyperkalemia by limiting the amount of potassium you take in. Ask your doctor or dietitian to tell you how much potassium you should have each day to prevent hyperkalemia. Once you have a goal, you can plan your meals to make sure you are getting the right amount of potassium every day.
To achieve your potassium goal, you will need to know how much potassium is in your foods and drinks. Packaged foods must have nutrition labels, but potassium is not always listed on the label. If you don’t see potassium listed on the nutrition label, check the list of ingredients on the package. If the word potassium or an abbreviation for potassium (K, KCl or K+) is listed, there is potassium in the food.
Fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products often do not have labels. Ask your dietitian for a list of high potassium foods and lower potassium options.
Plan ahead if you know you will be eating a meal that is high in potassium. For example, if you are going out for dinner later and you know your meal will be high in potassium, or you know that it will be hard to measure how much potassium is in your meal, plan to eat meals that are low in potassium for breakfast and lunch.
Use this sample potassium log to start tracking how much potassium you eat at each meal.
How is hyperkalemia treated?
If you learn that you have hyperkalemia, your doctor might suggest that you change your diet to take in less potassium. To do this, you may need to stay away from foods that are very high in potassium, such as baked potatoes and baked winter squash. Remember that drinks have potassium in them, too! You should also avoid salt substitutes because they are usually high in potassium.
Because so many healthy foods have potassium in them, and because you do need some potassium every day, it is important to know which foods are good choices. It is also important to pay attention to serving sizes. Use measuring cups and measuring spoons to make sure you know how many servings you are eating or drinking. Remember that if you eat two servings, you are eating twice as much potassium!
Talk to your doctor or dietitian about how much potassium you should have and how you can control how much you take in. Your dietitian can recommend foods that are lower in potassium that you can eat instead of foods that are high in potassium.
Your doctor might also tell you to take a medicine called a potassium binder. This type of medicine works by sticking to the potassium in your body and preventing some of it from being taken into your bloodstream. This helps to keep potassium from building up in your blood. The medicine is a powder, which you will take by mixing it with a little bit of water and drinking it. Talk to your doctor to find out if a potassium binder is an option for you.