Q & A Library

Print this page | Sign up for free e-bulletins
 | Bookmark This Page

Too Much Potassium?

I received the results from a recent blood test and my potassium levels were borderline high. My doctor told me to cut back on bananas, tomatoes, oranges, and potatoes and to have another blood test in a few months. What do high potassium levels indicate? 

Answer (Published 8/17/2006)

The first thing I would recommend is that you have the blood test repeated. Randy Horwitz, M.D., medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine here at the University of Arizona, notes that lab errors and poor handling of blood samples or poor technique by the phlebotomist who drew your blood can cause potassium levels to rise. For example, clenching and relaxing your fist frequently while your blood is being drawn can elevate potassium. If blood comes out of your veins too quickly - or too slowly - blood cells can break down causing a potassium increase. If a blood sample doesn't get from the doctor's office to the laboratory for testing quickly enough, potassium levels can increase. These testing problems are well known, which is why doctors typically order a second test before accepting the results and initiating a workup to look for possible causes of high potassium (also called hyperkalemia). Hyperkalemia itself usually causes no symptoms, although in some cases, nausea or an irregular heartbeat may be noted.

Related Weil Products
Dr. Weil's Vitamin Advisor for Your Whole Body - Foods, herbs and drugs can all interact, sometimes in unexpected ways. Dr. Weil's Vitamin Advisor takes known interactions into account when developing nutritional supplement recommendations, to help safeguard against adverse effects. Learn more, and get your free, personalized Dr. Weil's Vitamin Advisor recommendation today.

If a repeat test still shows elevated levels, your physician will have to explore the factors that could be responsible. Diet is rarely at fault - it is unlikely that you could eat enough bananas or use enough of a potassium-based "salt substitute" to elevate the potassium in your blood. (I don't understand why your doctor told you to cut back on the fruits and vegetables you mention.) Low-salt packaged foods contain the mineral, but I doubt that intake of these products would result in elevated blood concentrations either.

However, certain drugs can cause potassium levels to rise. These include very widely-used blood pressure medications known as ACE-inhibitors, potassium supplements given with diuretics (also called "water pills"), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as lithium, calcium channel blockers, and blood thinning agents such as heparin.

If drugs and supplements are ruled out as possible causes, you'll need tests to check other electrolytes (blood minerals) in addition to potassium, your kidney function, blood glucose levels (especially if you have diabetes), and a white blood cell count (elevations can increase potassium levels). The most common causes of hyperkalemia are related to kidney function, since the kidneys normally excrete excess potassium from the body.

Addison's disease - a rare disorder of the adrenal glands (made famous by President John F. Kennedy, who had it) - is a condition marked by reduced production of a hormone that regulates excretion of sodium and potassium. An endocrinologist can diagnose this condition, which is treatable.

This may sound scary, but keep in mind that the most likely outcome is that a repeat blood test will show that your potassium levels are normal.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved Creative Commons Copyright Notice
A portion of the original material created by Weil Lifestyle on (specifically, all question and answer-type articles in the Dr. Weil Q&A Library) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Weil Vitamin Advisor
Get your FREE personalized vitamin recommendation & supplement plan today!

Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging
Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Start eating for your health - begin your free trial now.

Dr. Weil's Spontaneous Happiness
Achieve emotional well-being in just eight weeks! Start your 10-day free trial now!

Vitamin Library
Supplement your knowledge with Dr. Weil's essential vitamin facts. Learn why they are necessary and more.

Dr. Weil's Optimum Health Plan
Your 8-week plan to wellness.
Begin your journey today!

Dr. Weil's Head-to-Toe Wellness Guide
Your guide to natural health.
Use the Wellness Guide today!

Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Food Pyramid

Our interactive tool can help improve overall health through diet.

Condition Care Guide
Learn about health conditions from acne to vertigo, and Dr. Weil's view of the best treatment options for each.

Healthy Recipes
Discover a treasure trove of healthy, healing foods and creative, delicious ways to prepare them.

Q&A Library
Over 2,000 questions from you and their corresponding answers from Dr. Weil.

Copyright © 2015 Weil Lifestyle
Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment.

Ad Choice
Advertising Notice

This Site and third parties who place advertisements on this Site may collect and use information about your visits to this Site and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like to obtain more information about these advertising practices and to make choices about online behavioral advertising, please click here