The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can People Overdose on Potassium-Rich Foods?

Many people are low in potassium. That's because they take thiazide diuretics to control blood pressure. Is it possible to overdose on potassium-rich foods?

Potassium is an essential mineral. When potassium levels fall too low doctors call it HYPOkalemia. This condition can become life threatening. Symptoms include weakness, confusion, muscle cramps, muscle spasms, numbness, tingling, irregular heart rhythms, constipation, thirst and/or frequent urination. Too much potassium (HYPERkalemia) can also lead to irregular heart rhythms (palpitations), tingling or numbness in lips, feet, or hands, weakness, slow pulse and confusion. Is it possible for individuals to overdose on potassium-rich foods? This reader thinks so.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Q. I follow a potassium-rich diet to manage my blood pressure. However, a recent blood test showed a high level of potassium. My doctor said this could be a health hazard.

By cutting back on fruits and limiting the amounts of nuts and beets I eat, I got back to a normal level. It goes to show you that too much of a good thing can be harmful.

A. The body generally keeps potassium within a fairly narrow range. You are smart to pay attention to how your diet affects your blood level of this crucial mineral, since too much and too little potassium are both dangerous.

We hope your physician can figure out why your potassium levels got out of the safety zone. Quite a few medications can disrupt levels of potassium. Salt substitutes can also cause problems for some people:

Why Potassium Chloride Is Not Always a Safe Salt Substitute!

Can You Overdose on Potassium-Rich Foods Such as Bananas?

A few years ago we received a question from a mother concerned about her daughter’s love of bananas. She ate several every day. Here is a link to that question:

Is Daughter Risking Her Life Eating Bananas?

To put your mind at ease, most people cannot overdose on potassium-rich foods. That said, there is a case of a young woman who suffered from anorexia nervosa (Brain & Development, July, 2007). She primarily ate 20 bananas daily for roughly two years. She did indeed develop hyperkalemia. The authors go on to note:

“When the patient resumed other food ingestion after 26 months of obsessive and restricted eating of banana, the abnormalities in her blood data and her psychological state were all corrected toward normal. We conclude that in this case, the obsessive and restricted habit of banana ingestion resulted in hyperkalemia, hyperdopaminemia, and psychological change.”

The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:

We have always been strong proponents of the saying, “moderation in all things.” That is true of foods as well as medications. You may wish to learn about drug interactions that can lead to hyperkalemia and why this is such a potentially dangerous situation.

Antibiotic plus BP Medicine Led to Deadly Drug Interaction

One reader reacted to this post:

“Thank you for continuing to write about the deadly interaction between the antibiotic SMZ-TMP and certain blood pressure pills. Because of this article you may have saved my husband’s life!

“If only doctors and pharmacists would read your articles. You wrote about such a reaction many years ago, and, at that time, I alerted my elderly friends to be aware. Little did I know that my 79-year-old husband would fall victim to such a prescription interaction last year when our elderly internist prescribed a high dose of SMZ-TMP for 14 days in treatment of pneumonia. We have known that this doctor does not keep up with updates in many areas of medicine.

“Remembering the possibility of this deadly interaction from your articles, I immediately alerted his cardiologist who ran blood tests which determined he was suffering from dehydration and moderate loss of kidney function . He was also was taking losartan. When our internist saw the blood test results, he said, “These results must be wrong.” His cardiologist said to discontinue the drug to avoid hyperkalemia.

“I don’t know how many times I share your many articles with our cardiologist who actually reads them, which makes for a good team relationship. Keep up the good work in making us good health advocates for our own protection!”

Share your own story about potassium in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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Unusually high levels of minerals, vitamins, homocysteine, etc. as well as drugs, can build build up in people with the MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) gene mutation. It can also result in nutrient deficiencies, or cause drugs or supplements to metabolize too quickly, resulting in dangerous side effects. Because of that gene problem, I’ve nearly died several times from average, even low doses of Western pharmaceuticals.

Some scientists estimate this genetic problem may affect up to 30 percent of the population worldwide, and a simple blood test can detect it, yet most people, including most doctors, have never heard of it. I have it, so except in emergencies, I now rely on exercise, foods, spices, herbs, and herbal infusions, tinctures, and decoctions for my health. They take more time, but they work and are far safer and cheaper than drugs.

If I’m going to get my potassium from food, how many bananas/potatoes/etc. should I eat to keep my level where it should be? I’m 85 and in perfect health.

I found I was high in potassium from a routine blood test. I am now under the care of a nephrologist. I have a list on my refrigerator of “do” and “don’t” eat foods. It is hard to follow because everything on the “do not eat” list is everything I love, fish and vegetables in particular. I can eat frozen veggies (least favorite). Oh, well.

I will always show a high range of Potassium if the tourniquet is not released prior to the blood collection.

I have hypertension, CVD, and an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I take potassium (via tablets & liquid) daily–about a 1000 mg or more, along with whatever potassium comes with my food. I am very aware of the potential dangers of hyperkalemia but have never had blood potassium levels above the normal range. Apparently, my kidneys are doing their job.

The RDA for potassium ranges from 3500-4700 mg/day. One popular diet for hypertension aims for 4700 mg daily.
I think many folks may have a hard time meeting 3500 mg per day if their diet is not plant-based.

Due to kidney failure, I’ve been hyperkalemic for a number of years. Of course I was told to stay away from high K foods, which I did. I read about a year ago that there was in fact no scientific evidence linking dietary K with serum K. And then this study recently came out indicating there was no connection.

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