Our Doctor Explains Why This Common Medication Can Raise Your Potassium To Dangerous Levels

Very often, the conversation surrounding dangerously high potassium levels is grouped with acute kidney failure. And there's a reason for this: your kidney is responsible for maintaining (and flushing out) any excess potassium in your system so if you have chronic kidney disease, you might be left with hyperkalemia (high blood potassium). 

But other things like the foods you consume, excessive use of potassium supplements, dehydration, and type 1 diabetes could influence potassium levels too. According to longevity physician and functional medicine doctor, Dr. Scott Noorda speaking exclusively with Health Digest, there is a common medication that can increase your potassium levels (albeit indirectly) too — the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or NSAID ibuprofen.  

"NSAIDS like ibuprofen decrease kidney function, which inhibits their ability to remove extra potassium and maintain the right balance of potassium in the blood. Ibuprofen can also reduce blood flow to the kidneys, causing a traffic jam that keeps too much potassium in the blood," the physician explained. Add that to the list of things you might not know about ibuprofen. But wait, why are high potassium levels a problem?

High (or low) potassium levels can affect your heart

According to Dr. Scott Noorda, your heart health is what's mostly impacted when you have too much potassium. Potassium — by influencing the electrical signals of the myocardium – keeps your heart beating at the right rhythm. "Having high potassium can drop the heart's rhythm, potentially leading to irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias. In severe cases, it can lead to heart palpitations or even a heart attack," added the board-certified physician. 

Chronically elevated potassium levels can impair your kidney function too, per the expert. Since the all-important job of regulating potassium belongs to your kidneys, persistently high levels can stress your kidneys and lead to burnout, so maintaining the right level of potassium in your system is important. Low blood potassium, also known as hypokalemia, can impact your muscles, nerves, and heart health too. Just like Ibuprofen can increase potassium levels, other medications like diuretics, vitamins (vitamin D), and mineral supplements (calcium, magnesium, and sodium) can decrease levels, Noorda shared. 

Some signs can alert you to either high or low potassium levels. "The most common signs of low potassium are muscle cramping and restless legs. Fatigue can also be a symptom of low potassium." Constipation, nausea, vomiting, and difficulty breathing are signs too. There are some symptoms, like heart palpitations, tingling or numbness, and muscle weakness, that are common to both low and high potassium levels, the doctor noted. There is the right level of potassium to maintain, which can be aided by supplements. 

Potassium supplementation: What you need to know

A blood potassium level of 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) is considered normal, per Mayo Clinic. This means deficient levels would be anything less than 2.5 mmol/L, and very high would mean anything higher than 6.0 mmol/L. 

That being said, Dr. Scott Noorda explained that people can typically keep their potassium levels at optimum with their diet if they include lots of fruits and vegetables. Dried fruits, lentils, beans, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, avocado, and bananas are some of the foods considered good potassium sources. And if your levels are a little low and you're noticing signs, you could consume some electrolytes readily available in stores, per the physician. "Many of the higher-quality electrolytes on the market (avoid fillers and sugar!) include potassium and that can be a good option if you're just a little low." This might be particularly important if you're sweating regularly, added the doctor, or if you have gastrointestinal issues like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or bacterial infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea. 

While you can supplement with low doses with what you eat and drink, high-dose supplementation should be done under the guidance of a doctor, added Dr. Noorda. Having your levels tested periodically could give you a clearer picture. Also, if you take ibuprofen every day (unrecommended by your doctor), you have another reason to be cautious.