What Are the Causes of Hypokalemia?

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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2018
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There are are many possible causes of hypokalemia, a medical condition where one has too little potassium in the bloodstream. Most of the causes of hypokalemia are non-life threatening, such as ingesting too little potassium or having an electrolyte imbalance. Treatment methods vary depending on one's particular cause of hypokalemia.

Though it is possible for anyone to experience hypokalemia, certain groups are prone to the disorder. One such group is individuals who take diuretic medication; excess urination depletes the body's supply of potassium. The same effect occurs in individuals who take laxatives. Another group is individuals who fast in order to lose weight. In their case, the body becomes deficient of many vitamins and nutrients needed for normal bodily function.

Outside of individuals sensitive to hypokalemia, one of the primary causes of hypokalemia is not including enough potassium in one's diet. This occurrence is an issue in developed countries where the average diet is comprised primarily of processed food. Unless they are fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as certain cereals, for example, most processed foods lack sufficient potassium.

Another one of the dietary-related causes of hypokalemia is chronic malnutrition. As potassium is present in a variety of foods, one's diet would need to be limited for an extended length of time before hypokalemia sets in. The results are the same whether or not one ingests enough calories.


Excess sweating and diarrhea are two causes of hypokalemia that have the same effect as diuretic and laxative medication. Both processes cause the body to rapidly flush out potassium. Vomiting does not have the same effect, as the body concentrates potassium only after it has entered the intestines.

Diabetic ketoacidosis is one of the rare causes of hypokalemia that is life-threatening. Occurring mainly in type I diabetics, the corresponding lack of insulin and high glucagon levels cause the body to dump glucagon in urine. This process simultaneously expels large quantities of potassium and sodium, leading to the rapid development of symptoms associated with hypokalemia. The condition is fatal within hours if left untreated.

Most of the causes of hypokalemia are easily correctable. Usually, the condition is remedied by eating foods that have naturally occurring potassium: tomatoes, orange juice, beans, and bananas. If one experiences diarrhea, excessive sweating or excessive urinating, drinking beverages fortified with vitamins and nutrients should prevent an electrolyte imbalance. If one is considering taking supplements to treat hypokalemia, it might be necessary to consult a physician to make sure that a serious medical condition is not causing the deficiency.



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