Are You Salt Sensitive or Potassium Deficient

author avatar Dr. Eric Berg 08/31/2023

Now, many people today are diagnosed with salt sensitivity, but they really don't have that problem. Instead, they are often dealing with low potassium intake.

Here’s how you can tell the difference.

What Is Salt Sensitivity and Why Are People Misdiagnosed?

Salt sensitivity often misdiagnosed - consider low potassium

Many people are told that they have salt sensitivity and they need to avoid sodium. In fact, about 60% of people with high blood pressure or high-normal blood pressure are also thought to be salt sensitive. And this is a pretty serious diagnosis. People with salt sensitivity are:

  • More likely to suffer from a heart attack or other cardiovascular disease
  • More likely to suffer from renal issues like kidney stones or sluggish kidney response to salt intake
  • Likely to present symptoms like microalbuminuria (presence of protein in the urine) and salt-induced edema, or fluid retention
  • Likely to have their kidneys produce more urine

That said, this is difficult to diagnose correctly. Accurate testing involves increasing and decreasing sodium intake while monitoring systolic and diastolic blood pressure and continuously measuring how much sodium leaves the body in the urinary excretions. But most doctors don't do this.

Instead, they see high blood pressure and assume that salt sensitivity is a contributing factor. They don't do urinary tests, and they don't monitor how you respond to sodium intake in real-time. As a result, they put people on blood pressure medication and diagnose them with salt sensitivity just to "cover all their bases."

Well, oftentimes they're wrong, and this diagnosis can actually lead to medical issues of its own.


Well, you need about 1000 milligrams of sodium a day. If you don't get this amount and you have low sodium - or hyponatremia - you could have a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue, lethargy, and loss of energy
  • Nausea
  • Weak muscles. Spasms, and cramps
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Confusion

That’s because sodium is an electrolyte (so are potassium, calcium, and bicarbonate). As such, it's really important for the normal functioning of the body. It helps regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity, and help rebuild damaged tissue.

So, where does potassium come into play here? Well, sodium and potassium work together in the body. They’re kind of a pair of minerals. And we need four times as much potassium - 4700 milligrams - as we do sodium.

This is where confusion can happen: people get diagnosed with salt sensitivity when the real problem is potassium deficiency.

The solution, then, is to raise your potassium intake.

The Solution: Raise Your Potassium

best potassium source salad vegetables

Instead of accepting the salt sensitivity diagnosis, keep your sodium at 1000 milligrams and raise your potassium intake long-term. This will likely fix your problem and correct your blood pressure because you could be dealing with potassium deficiency.

Many People Have Low Potassium

Now, low potassium is more common than you might think. Many people in America have low potassium because of their lifestyle: they consume high-carb or high-sugar foods, both of which will cause problems.

Refined carbs, in particular, deplete potassium and hold sodium. So when you do a high carb diet - which most people do - you’re holding a lot of sodium and you’re losing a lot of potassium. As a result, you have this severe imbalance.

Stress can also deplete potassium. This could be stress from trauma, injury, shock, or surgery. That's why, if you go through surgery, they may give you potassium in an IV.

So this is a common issue in America.

How do you know if you have low potassium intake?

People who are potassium deficient have symptoms like:

  • High blood pressure: When you’re low in potassium, your blood pressure will increase. Why? Because potassium is a physiological relaxer - it calms things down and reduces blood pressure. Not getting enough potassium will instantly increase your blood pressure - and taking regular blood pressure medication won't solve this problem.
  • Muscle cramps: Potassium is an electrolyte, which means that adequate potassium intake is necessary in order to maintain proper muscular function.
  • Sugar cravings: Potassium helps you store sugar, and it’ll actually help you get rid of sugar cravings because the storage of glucose needs potassium.
  • Constipation: Adequate levels of dietary potassium will help your digestive system stay regular.
  • High Fat Storing Hormone: There’s a relationship between sugar, blood sugar, diabetes, and potassium intake. In fact, when you have enough dietary potassium, the need for Fat Storing Hormone goes down - so I always recommend increased potassium intake for diabetic clients.
  • Muscle weakness: You can have this inexplicable muscle weakness and not know why. That’s because electrolytes are needed to help the muscles contract. If you don't have enough potassium, sodium, or calcium, you'll experience muscle weakness.
  • Abnormal heartbeat: That’s also why you can have an abnormal heartbeat or cardiovascular disease. The heart is a muscle. These abnormal heartbeats - for example, atrial fibrillation and arrhythmias - are a combination of deficiency in potassium intake and/or magnesium.
  • Anxiety and insomnia: Again, potassium is something to calm you down. So if you’re doing a diet that doesn’t involve a lot of dietary potassium, you can start manifesting a lot of these symptoms.
  • Renal malfunction: Hypokalemia may also mess with your renal system. It can impair your kidneys' ability to concentrate urine. This can result in excessive urination and excessive thirst.

Now, you may be thinking at this point Can't my doctor see all this and understand that I have low potassium? If that were the problem, they would know. Well, this isn't necessarily true. See, normal tests that check potassium levels look in the blood, outside the cell.

Well, only 2% of your potassium reserves are actually present outside the cell. 98% of your potassium is inside your cells, and the tests just don’t look there. That’s why they miss it.

The Solution: Vegetables

To fix this, you need a lot of dietary potassium. You can get that from large amounts of salad. You need to consume between seven to ten cups of vegetable or salad every single day to get your dietary potassium.

What about bananas? Well, despite their fame as a, "potassium-rich food," the reality is that bananas only have about 300mg of potassium. You would have to have ten to twelve bananas to get the required potassium intake. That’s not feasible (or healthy with all that sugar) which is why I would get it from salads.

You can enhance it with potassium chloride supplements, too, but I recommend that you do it with actual food as much as possible.

What Causes Misdiagnosis: Our Normal Dietary Intake Is Out of Balance

Now, the average American consumes 3700 mg of sodium per day. That’s a lot of dietary sodium. What’s more: they only consume 1000 mg of potassium. So their dietary intake of minerals is out of balanced and reversed. This is where the problem lies.

In fact, some research has found that the higher the ratio of sodium to potassium, the greater the chance of having a heart attack or stroke, needing bypass surgery or angioplasty, or dying of a cardiovascular disease.

Also, people with high sodium and low potassium can have weaker bones. A diet high in sodium increases the amount of calcium excreted in the urine. This loss is especially prominent when calcium intake is low, as it is for many Americans today. Loss of calcium can contribute to osteoporosis, the age-related weakening of bones, and you should do what you can to avoid low calcium. `

In any case, though, the fact is that these people do not have salt sensitivity - they just have low potassium and high sodium. Now, you may be thinking isn't that the same thing? They DO have salt sensitivity because they're clearly consuming too much salt. Well, yes, their salt intake is high. But if they lowered their dietary sodium levels, they'd still have health problems because they haven't corrected the potassium intake. That's what they really have to focus on improving.

Cause 1: High Fructose Corn Syrup

Now, in the 1980s, we had this spike in high systolic and diastolic blood pressure. So many people were all of a sudden diagnosed with salt sensitivity and high blood pressure. I want to talk about that for a second because there’s something else that happened in the 1980s that could have caused this blood pressure problem: the introduction of high fructose corn syrup.

High fructose corn syrup has pretty much replaced our sugar - not to mention there has also been a rise in sugar itself. Well, high fructose corn syrup and sugar actually cause potassium depletion and make you retain sodium. So when you consume high fructose corn syrup, which is in so many juices and foods, you basically cause the retention of sodium and potassium depletion. As a result, you also cause high blood pressure and other associated health concerns, including renal and urinary issues.

You lose your potassium when you consume sugar or high fructose corn syrup. That’s another cause of why people are potassium deficient.

I used to have so many people come into my office with swollen, puffy ankles, all kinds of inflammation issues, urinary problems, and blood pressure concerns. All I would do was add in the vegetables, cut out the high fructose corn syrup, put them on the correct eating plan, and they would dump tons of fluid and see their blood pressure numbers improve.

Cause 2: MSG

MSG hidden source of excess sodium

Plus there’s the hidden MSG in the junk foods (along with modified food starch). That is a hidden source of dietary sodium, so it can cause a lot of fluid retention as well. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, for example, or a fast food place, they have a lot of sodium that’s hidden.

Again, what you want to do is you want to increase your potassium intake. Don’t worry about cutting out your sodium too much. If your sodium is too low, you’re going to feel weak and you’re going to get a headache. But just get the junk out - the MSG and the fructose - and increase your potassium intake by eating salads and vegetables. With that, you should feel better and your blood pressure should improve.

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Disclaimer: Our educational content is not meant or intended for medical advice or treatment.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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