“You guys go ahead and walk the dogs. I’m going to stay in here and rest,” Laurie Rittgers, 49, told her kids, unable to pry herself from the couch. “Lying there alone, I had a flashback to my childhood — how my own mother had struggled to keep up with me whenever I wanted to ride bikes or play sports, and how I told myself back then that I was going to be an active parent someday for my kids. But day after day, Laurie battled relentless exhaustion, until she discovered the surprisingly common culprit and the simple fixes that changed everything.
Running on Empty
“A couple of years ago, my energy evaporated. Lots of changes were happening. My family went through a stressful move, and my nursing job shifted to nights. After following a ketogenic diet for nearly five years, which helped me slim, I needed something more convenient. With no time to cook, I began relying on prepackaged low-calorie meals. Sleep-deprived and struggling to stay awake, I also found myself reaching for more sugar and caffeine.
“Naturally, I started regaining the weight I had lost, which was easy to hide under my baggy work scrubs. But I couldn’t deny the other health changes: I felt weak and anxious, and I suffered daily hot flashes, heart palpitations and tingling in my legs. Years ago when I’d started keto, I’d experienced the fatigue, dizziness, and nausea that can strike as the body goes through carb withdrawal, but this seemed different. I couldn’t be the wife or mother my family deserved. It was like I had a different personality. Friends would tell me, ‘Normally, you’re upbeat. But you’re so moody and withdrawn. What’s wrong?’
“At first, I blamed my schedule. But I knew work wasn’t my problem — helping people is my passion! There was something clinical going on, maybe sleep deprivation, perimenopause, or a faulty thyroid… I wasn’t sure.
“The irony: I spent much of my time educating patients, but I was too tired to investigate my own health. Like all the nurses I knew, I never asked the doctors I worked with for advice about my own situation — I thought I could help myself. I figured I was just a few good naps away from catching up and feeling normal again. But relief never came.
“Then I developed chronic constipation. It was miserable and foreign. My worst fears came to mind — my family’s history of cancer. I worried I was dying and told myself, It’s finally time to go to the doctor and face the music.
“Thankfully, my blood work confirmed that I wasn’t dying! But it did reveal a surprise: My doctor explained, ‘Laurie, you’re deficient in almost every vitamin and mineral, especially potassium, which is causing your palpitations, constipation, and fatigue. What have you been eating?’
“I thought about my dieting history. I’d been so focused on losing weight that I hadn’t realized cutting out high-carb fruits and veggies meant losing crucial nutrients. I had also been drinking a gallon of water a day, so I was flushing out electrolytes like potassium without replacing them in my diet. Suddenly it made sense — my deficiency likely started years ago, and the hole I’d unknowingly dug for myself was getting deeper and deeper.
“My doctor wanted to prescribe infusion therapy, giving me potassium through an IV. But I didn’t want anything that invasive and convinced him to let me try dietary changes first to see if my body would reset itself.
“Knowing I needed convenient meals with my work schedule, I researched various nutrition plans that included more potassium-rich foods like avocado and spinach. I decided to test a 30-day meal plan from Optavia. I liked that each meal had 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, unlike the artificial snacks I’d been living on lately.
“I got started, and within the first week, I felt more energized. I even lost 7 pounds. After two weeks, I was ecstatic to read my lab results: My potassium level was back to normal, and vitamins B and D were improved too. I couldn’t believe the difference. I always thought I was taking care of my body, but now I’m more aware of the crucial nutrients I was missing. It can be so easy to get off-balance — even for a nurse!
“Overcoming my deficiencies and losing the weight — 46 pounds! — has been life-changing. I haven’t felt this good in years. My anxiety and hot flashes are history, and I’m going to the bathroom regularly. The best part: I have the energy to be active with my family! To pay it forward, I’m using my background to coach other people about nutrition through Optavia and my YouTube channel: FelicianNurse. I’m turning 50 soon, and I know it’s going to be great!”
Potassium Deficiency Causes and Treatment
Every cell in the body needs potassium, yet 98 percent of women are deficient, says Michael Greger, MD, founder of NutritionFacts.org. The reason? “We don’t eat enough plants, the most concentrated source we have.” And since potassium regulates so many cellular functions, a deficiency can cause tiredness, muscle aches, and other seemingly unrelated symptoms, making it hard for women and their doctors to connect the dots.
A ketogenic diet can exacerbate a potassium shortfall. “The diet taxes the digestive system and leaves behind acidic by-products,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, author of 60 Seconds to Slim ($7.18, Amazon). “To compensate, the body uses up stores of alkalizing minerals like potassium.” The result? Nausea, fatigue, and other flu-like symptoms (a condition experts call “keto flu”) for 75 percent of women who try the diet.
A blood test can diagnose a potassium deficiency. If you have a shortfall, the strategies below can raise levels to improve energy and overall health.
Consuming potassium-rich foods is the best way to reverse a deficiency, says Cook, noting that the mineral is best absorbed when it comes from food. Top sources to help you get the recommended 4,700 mg. a day: spinach (800 mg. in 1 cup), sweet potatoes (694 mg. each), broccoli (457 mg. per cup) and avocado (364 mg. per 1/2 cup).
An electrolyte-rich sip can help restore levels to boost energy. To make: In a pitcher, mix 6 cups of water, 1/2 tsp. of Himalayan salt (it has three times the potassium of table salt), the juice of 1 lemon, 2 tsp. of magnesium citrate powder, and sweetener to taste. Store in the fridge. Enjoy 1 to 2 cups a day. And since too much salt prompts the body to excrete potassium, limit intake to 2,300 mg. (1 tsp.) daily.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.
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