Why is my patient with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and hypovolemia hypertensive?

Although we may expect patients with DKA to present with hypotension due to hypovolemia, many patients with DKA may actually be hypertensive. This finding is particularly intriguing because hyperinsulinemia, not insulinopenia as found in DKA, has been associated with hypertension. 1,2

Though not proven, potential explanations for hypertension in DKA include elevated serum levels of catecholamines, pro-inflammatory cytokines, renin, angiotension II and aldosterone.3-5 Hyperosmolality may also lead to the release of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) which increases blood pressure via V2 receptors.  Another possibility is that the high insulin levels associated with the treatment of DKA suppress the catecholamine-stimulated production of vasodilative eicosanoids (eg, prostaglandins) by adipose tissue. 1 It’s possible that in any given patient, 1 or more of these mechanisms may be enough to override the potential hypotensive effect of insulin deficiency in DKA.

We should note that reports of frequent hypertension in DKA have primarily involved pediatric patients. A 2011 study found that 82% of pediatric patients with DKA had hypertension during the first 6 hours of admission with no patient having hypotension.3  

On the other extreme, refractory hypotension without obvious cause (eg, sepsis, acute adrenal insufficiency, cardiogenic causes) has also been reported in DKA.5Because insulin inhibits the production of vasodilative prostaglandins (eg, PGI2 and PGE2), severe insulin deficiency in DKA can also contribute to hypotension along with volume depletion. 

Potential genetic polymorphism in the synthesis and metabolism of prostaglandins may at least partially explain the varied blood pressure response and whether a patient with DKA presents with hypertension or hypotension. 5  

The author would like to acknowledge the valuable contribution of Lloyd Axelrod MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, to this post.

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  1. Axelrod L. Insulin, prostaglandins, and the pathogenesis of hypertension. Diabetes 1991;40:1223-1227. https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/40/10/1223 
  2. Chatzipantelli K, Head C, Megerman J, et al. The relationship between plasma insulin level, prostaglandin productin by adipose tissue and blood pressure in normal rats and rats with diabetes mellitus and diabetic ketoacidosis. Metabolism 1996;45:691-98. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S002604959690133X 
  3. Deeter KH, Roberts JS, Bradford H, et al. Hypertension despite dehydration during severe pediatric diabetic ketoacidosis. Pediatr Diabetes 2011;12:295-301. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1399-5448.2010.00695.x 
  4. Ferris JB, O’Hare JA, Kelleher CM, et al. Diabetic control and the renin-angiotensin system, catecholamines and blood pressure. Hypertension 1985 7(Suppl II):II-58-II-63. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/01.HYP.7.6_Pt_2.II58  
  5. Singh D, Cantu M, Marx MHM, et al. Diabetic ketoacidosis and fluid refractory hypotension. Clin Pediatrics 2016;55:182-84. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0009922815584549?journalCode=cpja 


Why is my patient with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and hypovolemia hypertensive?

How does excess licorice consumption cause hypertension and hypokalemia?

The active ingredient of licorice, glycyrrhizic acid or glycyrrhizin, is first converted to glycyrrhetinic acid (GRA) in the bowel which is then absorbed. Once in the circulation, GRA inhibits activation of 11 β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 (11 β-HSD2), an enzyme in renal tissue that converts active cortisol to inactive cortisone. Without the full action of this enzyme, proper sodium and potassium homeostasis would be difficult because cortisol is just as effective in stimulating mineralocorticoid receptors as aldosterone but with 100-1000 times higher concentration than that of aldosterone! 1-3

Other ways that GRA may cause hypertension and hypokalemia include inhibition of 5 β-reductase in the liver, an enzyme that metabolizes aldosterone and direct stimulation of mineralocorticoid receptors, though overall these mechanisms may not be as important as the effect of GRA on cortisol metabolism in renal tissue.1,2

Besides causing fluid retention, licorice ingestion has also been found to increase systemic vascular resistance possibly by increasing vascular tone and remodeling of the vascular wall, potentiating the vasoconstrictor actions of angiotensin II and catecholamines in smooth muscle, and suppressing vasodilatory systems, including endothelial nitric oxide synthase and prostacyclin synthesis.

It’s no wonder that the FDA issued a statement in 2017: “If you’re 40 or older, eating 2 ounces of black licorice a day for a day for at least two weeks could land you in the hospital with an irregular heart rhythm or arrhythmia.” 5

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that as early as 1951, extract of licorice was reported for treatment of Addison’s disease, a combination of licorice and soy sauce has been reported to be “life-saving” in a patient with Addison’s disease (2007), and GRA food supplementation may lower serum potassium in chronic hemodialysis patients (2009)? 6,7



  1. Sontia B, Mooney J, Gaudet L, et al. Pseudohyperaldosteronism, liquorice and hypertension. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich) 2008; 10:153-57. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18256580
  2. Omar HR, Komarova I, El-Ghonemi M, et al. Licorice abuse: time to send a warning message. The Adv Endocrinol Metab 2012;3:125-138. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3498851/
  3. Penninkilampi R, Eslick EM, Eslick GD. The association between consistent licorice ingestion, hypertension and hypokalaemia: as systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Human Hypertension 2017;31:699-707. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28660884
  4. Black licorice: trik or treat? https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm 277152.htm
  5. Hautaniemi EJ, Tahvanainen AM, Koskela JK, et al. Voluntary liquorice ingestion increases blood pressure via increased volume load, elevated peripheral arterial resistance, and decreased aortic compliance. Sci Rep 2017;7:10947. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5591274/
  6. Groen J, Pelser H, Willebrands AF, et al. Extract of licorice for the treatment of Addison’s disease. N Engl J Med 1951;244:471-75. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14806786
  7. Cooper H, Bhattacharya B, Verma V, et al. Liquorice and soy sauce, a life-saving concoction in a patient with Addison’s disease. Ann Clin Biochem 2007;44:397-99. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17594790
  8. Farese S, Kruse Anja, Pasch A, et al. Glycyrrhetinic acid food supplementation lowers serum potassium concentration in chronic hemodialysis patients. Kidney International 2009;76:877-84. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19641483
How does excess licorice consumption cause hypertension and hypokalemia?

The serum creatinine of my patient originally admitted for management of tense ascites is slowly rising. How concerned should I be?

Although the causes of increasing serum creatinine (SCr) in patients with cirrhosis are legion (eg, sepsis, acute tubular injury, and intravascular volume depletion due to over-diuresis, gastrointestinal bleed, or other causes), the most feared cause is often hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). HRS is a functional renal impairment that reflects the final pathophysiological stages of systemic circulatory impairment1, and significantly contributes to a worsening prognosis in patients with cirrhosis2. For example, without treatment, in patients whose SCr doubles in less than 2 weeks (type I HRS) the median survival is less than 2 weeks , while in those who develop a more gradual renal impairment (type II HRS) the median survival is 6 months3.

Physiologically, HRS is a culmination of significant vasodilation in the splanchnic arteries which, in time, leads to reduced organ perfusion due to a drop in the cardiac output. The associated increase in the activity of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone and the sympathetic nervous systems contributes to sodium and water retention, and further exacerbates intra-renal vasoconstriction and ascites3.

The primary goal in the medical management of HRS is to increase splanchnic vascular resistance4, often by administering a combination of IV albumin, octreotide and other vasoconstricting agents (eg, midodrine, norepinephrine, or terlipressin [unavailable in US and Canada]).  Of interest, in addition to expanding the circulating plasma volume, albumin may have a vasoconstricting effect by binding to endotoxins, nitric oxide, bilirubin and fatty acids4!



  1. Arroyo V, Fernandez J, Gines P. Pathogenesis and treatment of hepatorenal syndrome. Semin Liver Dis 2008;28:81-95.
  2. Salerno F, Gerbes A, Ginès P, et al. Diagnosis, prevention and treatment of hepatorenal syndrome in cirrhosis. Gut. 2007 Sep;56(9):1310-8.
  3. Cardenas A, Gines P. A Patient with cirrhosis and increasing creatinine Level: What Is It and what to do? Clin Gatroenterol Hepatol 2009;7:1287–1291. 
  4. Baraldi O, Valentini C, Donati G, et al. Hepatorenal syndrome: Update on diagnosis and treatment. World J Nephrol. 2015;4:511-20.

Contributed by Alireza Sameie, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School

The serum creatinine of my patient originally admitted for management of tense ascites is slowly rising. How concerned should I be?