INTRODUCTION: Chronic hypokalemia is the main finding in patients with Gitelman's syndrome. Exogenous factors can trigger deterioration of the patient's condition and provoke clinical symptoms. We discuss the pathophysiology of and therapy for Gitelman's syndrome, with a focus on dietary factors which may aggravate the disease.
CASE PRESENTATION: We describe the case of a 31-year-old, previously apparently healthy Caucasian Swiss man who presented to our hospital with gait disturbance of subacute onset and a potassium level of 1.5 mmol/L. A detailed medical history revealed that he had been consuming large amounts of licorice (in the form of Fisherman's Friend menthol eucalyptus lozenges). Despite discontinuing the intake of glycyrrhizinic acid, his potassium level remained low. Biochemical investigations showed refractory hypokalemia and secondary hyperaldosteronism, suggestive of Gitelman's syndrome. Despite treatment with supplementation of potassium and magnesium in combination with an aldosterone antagonist, further clinically symptomatic episodes occurred. Triggers could be identified only by repeated detailed history taking. In response to the patient's dietary excesses (ingestion of relevant amounts of alcohol, lemon juice and iced tea), his hypokalemia was aggravated and provoked clinical symptoms. Finally, vomiting and failure to replace salt led to volume depletion and hypokalemic crisis, with a plasma potassium level of 1.0 mmol/L and paralysis with respiratory failure necessitating not only infusion of saline and potassium but also temporary mechanical ventilation.
CONCLUSION: Dietary preferences may have a much larger impact than any drug treatment on the symptoms of this chronic syndrome. Individual (mainly dietary) preferences must be monitored closely, and patients should be given dietary advice to avoid recurrent aggravation of hypokalemia with muscular weakness.