Diabetes and Potassium Levels

Diabetes and Potassium

Potassium is a mineral that is often referred to as an electrolyte. These are electrically charged particles that are used by the cells to maintain voltage across the cell membranes of the body. They carry nerve impulses to other cells. Some other electrolytes in the body are chloride, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Kidneys help in regulating the number of electrolytes in the body.

The role of potassium is to help in nerve conduction, to help in contraction of the muscles, and to help regulate the heartbeat. Potassium also helps to maintain a proper fluid balance between the body’s cells and body liquids. One of the roles of the kidney is to ensure the body’s potassium level is correctly maintained. Levels that are too high or low can be equally dangerous.

The normal range of potassium in the body

Potassium has the capacity to move out of and into the cells of the body. Total stores of potassium in the body are 50 mEq/kg of body weight. Out of this, about 98% of the total potassium is located inside the body cells and is intracellular. Only 2% is located outside the cells in blood circulation and in extracellular tissues.

Blood tests only measure potassium levels that are outside the cells, in the blood circulation. So, conditions and diseases that cause potassium to move out of the cells into the blood stream can increase the levels of potassium into the blood, even though the total amount of potassium has not changed in the body.

Potassium is a mineral that helps to keep the body fluids at a normal level.So, by keeping fluids in check it helps muscles to contract without pain, keeps the heart beating correctly, and maintains brain function at its highest capacity.

The role of potassium in diabetes

Diabetic patients often have less capacity of the kidney to excrete potassium into the urine. A combination of diminished excretion and potassium moving out of the cells causes hyperkalaemia.

Potassium and insulin have a positive feedback mechanism. If blood levels of potassium go too high, then insulin is released from beta cells of the pancreas to help lower the potassium levels.

There is some evidence that people with type 2 diabetes have low levels of potassium in their cells.

Causes of fluctuation of potassium levels

Levels of potassium fluctuate depending on the fluid the body retains. Fluctuation is also seen in cases of Lasix use for some diseases. Here are some causes of potassium fluctuation in the body:

  • Kidney problems
  • Frequent urination
  • Vomiting
  • Improper pH
  • Certain cancer and diabetes medications

High potassium levels and diabetes

High levels of potassium often result from damage of the kidney. This damage is often a result of poorly controlled diabetes mellitus. This kidney damage is one of the major complications of diabetes and is called diabetic nephropathy.

High levels of potassium also occur in the case of diabetic ketoacidosis. This is a serious metabolic condition commonly seen in people with type 1 diabetes. Too much potassium can lead to paralysis, weakness, irregular heartbeat or even heart attack.

Can diabetes lower potassium levels

Recent research has shown a link between low potassium levels and a risk of diabetes mellitus.

If sugar levels drop too quickly then hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) develops. This can also lower potassium levels resulting inhypokalaemia. Trauma or an excess of insulin in diabetics can cause a shift of potassium into the cells causing hypokalaemia.

Fluids and insulin that are used to treat diabetic ketoacidosis may also lower levels of potassium too far. If blood sugar levels drop too quickly, then hypoglycaemia develops which can also cause hypokalaemia. This low level of potassium can impair the nerves, muscles, and heart.

Relationship of insulin to potassium

Insulin is the hormone that is secreted by the beta cells of the pancreas. It keeps the level of potassium within the normal range in the blood. When insulin decreases the potassium level increases.

Insulin has plenty of functionsin the body besides lowering blood sugar. One of its functions is to put potassium into the cells by activating the cellular channel of sodium and potassium. Insulin stimulates the uptake of potassium and glucose in all the body’s cells, but primarily it fuels the fat cells as well as muscle cells.

In type 2 diabetes insulin does not function properly. Therefore, the body cells become resistant to insulin and blood glucose levels are elevated.

Relation of low potassium and risk of diabetes

It is believed that potassium causes the release of insulin from the beta cells of the pancreas. Low levels of potassium can contribute to the stress of the pancreas and result in future insulin resistance, leading to type 2 diabetes mellitus. It has been noticed that a higher intake of dietary potassium may result in a reduced risk of diabetes mellitus.

Potassium rich food in diabetes

Food rich in potassium has also been seen to benefit diabetics. Foods rich in potassium are-

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Dairy products
  • Corn
  • Spinach
  • Yogurt
  • Nuts
  • Salmon


If the correct level of potassium is not maintained, simple twitching to more serious seizures may result. Even heart arrhythmia is possible which could be fatal. Low levels of potassium can increase the chance of developing diabetes. Taking potassium won’t cure diabetes, but it can help in maintaining normal sugar levels in diabetic patients indirectly. Complications of diabetes and the medications used for this may interfere with potassium levels, so a check on potassium is necessary for diabetic patients. Insulin used for diabetes may lower potassium levels as well. Other medication used for control of blood pressure (which is a common problem associated with diabetes) may also reduce potassium levels in the body. It is advised that these patients increase their intake of potassium-rich food.

About the Author

Dr Shabnam Sharjil

Dr. Shabnam Sharjil is a doctor as well as a writer by profession with more than 10 years of experience in medicine. Dr. Shabnam completed her MBBS in 2005 and then did her postgraduate DNB training. She has experience with general as well as diabetic patients. She has worked in different government as well as private hospitals.
Dr. Shabnam loves writing on medical topics in a language that is easy for everyone to understand.

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