Potassium Deficiency – Is Gluten to Blame?
Does gluten cause potassium deficiency? Should those with a celiac diagnosis or gluten sensitivity be concerned with supplementing potassium in their diet? The simple answer is yes, but before we dive into the connection between gluten sensitivity and potassium deficiency, let’s take a look at why this electrolyte is such an important mineral necessary for the health and well being of your body.
Potassium is both a mineral and an electrolyte. It dissolves in the water component of your body fluids and creates positively charged ions. And many vital functions in your body rely on these electrically charged ions to occur effectively and efficiently.
So let’s take a closer look at the key roles potassium plays. Then we’ll discuss how gluten causes potassium deficiency and the problems that may arise as a result followed by a list of healthy, potassium-rich foods to boost your intake.
Key Roles of Potassium
Your body contains a variety of fluids. Some are inside your cells (intracellular) and others, such as blood, are outside of your cells (extracellular). And these fluids all contain water. So electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, help maintain an optimal balance of water between your intracellular fluids and extracellular fluids.
You’ve probably heard that your body is made up of mostly water, which is true. 60% to be exact. In addition, a big portion of this water is found inside your cells. And potassium is the main electrolyte in your intracellular fluid. So potassium controls the amount of water inside your cells, while sodium controls the concentration of water outside your cells.
If your cells lose too much water due to a lack of potassium, they become dehydrated. They may shrink and become dysfunctional. On the other hand, too much potassium may cause your cells to swell.
Thus, potassium is necessary to help balance the fluids in your body. So your cells function properly. So they’re able to get the nutrients and oxygen they need to function as well as get rid of waste. Fluid and electrolyte balance also helps maintain an optimal ph..
When potassium ions move outside a cell and sodium ions move inside a cell, the voltage of the cell changes. This creates a nerve impulse, which is how nerve cells communicate with each other and trigger events such as muscle contractions and heartbeats. So potassium is needed by your nervous system to send vital signals throughout your body.
We know that dietary potassium can significantly lower blood pressure. Because potassium helps relax smooth muscles that line the walls of your blood vessels. Also, the more potassium you absorb, the more sodium you excrete. Thus, due to these effects, dietary potassium can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Interestingly, medications used to treat high blood pressure have been known to cause potassium deficiencies (a.k.a. hypokalemia). Evidence also shows that these reductions in potassium caused by hypertensive diuretics can raise your blood sugar by reducing the amount of insulin your pancreas secretes after eating a meal with carbohydrates. This suggests that potassium plays a role in glucose regulation and a deficiency may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Bone & Kidney Health
Studies have shown that potassium reduces calcium excretion. Thus, more calcium stays in your bones, which keeps them strong and may help prevent osteoporosis. In addition, there’s also less calcium in your urine, which may help prevent kidney stones.
Can Gluten Cause Potassium Deficiency?
Potassium is found in a wide variety of plant and animal foods. So if you’re eating a healthy, whole-foods diet, getting enough potassium shouldn’t be a concern. However, the problem today is that most people aren’t eating whole foods. Instead, our society mostly eats nutrient deficient processed foods.
Plus, you need a healthy gut to digest your food and absorb the potassium it contains. And that’s where gluten gets in the way for those with gluten sensitivity. When consumed, gluten is seen as a threat. It activates your immune system, which ultimately causes gut inflammation and dysfunction. So no matter what you’re eating, your body can’t absorb the nutrients it needs and deficiencies are common.
Also, diarrhea is a frequent symptom of gluten sensitivity, which can cause nutrient deficiencies as well as dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. In this case study, a 3 year old boy presented with severe watery stools, vomiting, and dehydration. He was given fluids, which helped with the dehydration. But he soon lost control of his muscle function in his legs and his abdomen swelled, which are both symptoms of hypokalemia.
Upon testing, severe hypokalemia was detected. However, high dose potassium treatments did not reverse his symptoms. Due to his history of loose stools, he was then tested for celiac disease and a diagnosis was confirmed. After starting a gluten-free diet, his symptoms significantly improved. And he is able to live a normal life on a gluten-free diet.
Because potassium helps control the contraction of your heart muscles, severe hypokalemia can be life threatening. Symptoms of a deficiency to look out for include:
- Muscle weakness or spasms
- Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
- Tingling or numbness
- Muscular paralysis
- Difficulty breathing
- Mood swings
Potassium deficiencies are associated with the following conditions:
- Kidney stones
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Encephalopathy (in those with kidney disease)
- Mental disorders
Medications Can Deplete Potassium
Antibiotics, steroids, diuretics, and aspirin have all been shown to contribute to potassium deficiencies. If you are taking these medicines it is important to monitor your potassium levels. You should also keep in mind the fact that many of the symptoms and diseases caused by potassium deficiency are treated with the aforementioned medications.
Best Gluten and Grain Free Food Sources of Potassium
You’ve probably heard that bananas are a good source of potassium. And it’s true. But there are other foods with more or equal amounts that you should also consider to boost your potassium intake. Some examples include:
- Swiss chard
- Sweet potato
- Winter squash
- Brussel sprouts
- Bok Choy
- Bone Broth
Eating potassium rich foods after an intense workout is especially important. To replenish the electrolytes that are lost through your sweat.
Also, it’s important to note that potassium can’t do its job if you don’t do yours. So, in addition to eating potassium-rich foods, you must also drink plenty of water. Remember that if you filter your water with reverse osmosis (RO), it is important to add electrolytes back to it, as RO depletes naturally occurring electrolytes in the water. Long term consumption of electrolyte depleted water can actually contribute to dehydration.
And finally, if you have gluten sensitivity, the best way to prevent or treat a potassium deficiency is to eat a gluten-free diet.
There’s just no way around it. Fill your plate with nutrient-dense whole foods instead, which will allow your gut to heal and potassium to be absorbed.
Gluten Free Supplements containing Potassium include: