Potassium is an essential nutrient during pregnancy and the benefits are even more important for the health of both mother and baby.
Potassium is present in all body tissues and is required for normal cell function. An essential mineral, potassium plays a role in many bodily functions, including muscle contraction, heart function, and fluid balance. While this mineral has significant importance during pregnancy, ensuring proper levels is key, as there are some risks associated with levels that are too low as well as too high.
Some of the most essential functions of this mineral during pregnancy include:
This mineral is necessary for muscle contraction, and pregnant women need extra potassium to support the increased uterine muscle contractions during pregnancy as well as during labor. Since muscle contractions help to push the baby through the birth canal, adequate potassium intake can be a crucial proponent for a smooth delivery. Muscles in the digestive system also need potassium for proper function, and this mineral is necessary for the movement of food through the intestines.
Potassium is an essential nutrient when it comes to heart function. During pregnancy, women can benefit from extra amounts of this mineral to support the naturally increased blood volume and heart rate during the stages of pregnancy. As the heart pumps more blood during pregnancy, the extra mineral levels can help keep the heart working efficiently. This is especially important in the third trimester when the baby proliferates and the mother’s blood volume is at its highest.
This mineral helps to maintain fluid balance in the body. During pregnancy, extra fluid buildup in the woman’s body can cause the mineral’s levels to drop. This can lead to dehydration, which can be dangerous for both mother and baby. Thus, potassium can help maintain a healthy balance of fluid and electrolytes to maintain proper hydration levels. In addition, potassium helps in the transmission of nerve impulses, keeping blood pressure normal, and regulating water balance in the body.
Risks of Low Potassium Levels During Pregnancy
Like most nutrients, that are subject to deficiencies, potassium levels can also become low and result in a number of health concerns. While a potassium deficiency during pregnancy due to a shortage in diet nutrients is rather rare, low potassium levels can typically occur as a result of prolonged cases of diarrhea and vomiting or the use of diuretics. In addition, in cases of increased aldosterone production due to hormonal changes during pregnancy, potassium excretion can occur.
These lowered levels of potassium, which can become prevalent during pregnancy, is referred to as hypokalemia and occurs when levels drop below 3.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A potentially dangerous drop occurs when levels are at or less than 2.5 mmol/L. Although hypokalemia is one of the most common fluid-and-electrolyte abnormalities encountered in clinical practice, it occurs in only about one percent of pregnancies. Some of the most known risks associated with hypokalemia during pregnancy include:
The muscles of the pregnant woman and her unborn baby need the potassium mineral to function correctly. Because the muscles rely on this nutrient, when hypokalemia occurs, it can lead to muscle weakness and fatigue, making it difficult to move around, perform basic tasks and even lead to more difficult labor. In severe cases, weakness may increase to include hypokalemic paraplegia, which may range from numbness and weakness to complete paralysis.
As mentioned above, this mineral is necessary for fluid balance in the body, thus, hypokalemia can lead to dehydration, which can be dangerous for both mother and baby. An additional risk factor associated with dehydration is that it can make it difficult for the woman to absorb necessary nutrients from food consumed.
This mineral is necessary for heart function and a healthy cardiovascular system. Thus, the onset of hypokalemia can lead to heart arrhythmias, which can be dangerous for both mother and baby. Heart arrhythmias are heart conditions in which the heart beats too fast or too slow. In both cases, it can cause the woman to feel dizzy, lightheaded, or faint.
Risks of High Potassium Levels During Pregnancy
Similar to hypokalemia, high levels of potassium during pregnancy is called hyperkalemia and occurs when levels register higher than 5.0 mmol/L. Risks that can create an abundance of potassium levels include kidney disease, hyperglycemia, hyperemesis gravidarum, medication use or over-supplementation (although the body can typically adapt to excess potassium intake by increasing excretion rates). In cases where potassium levels remain high, hyperkalemia can lead to several risks including:
Increased potassium, hyperkalemia, levels can lead to kidney problems because the kidneys help to regulate the mineral’s levels in the body. If the kidneys are not functioning correctly, or are under increased strain to filter mineral levels, they may not be able to remove enough mineral from the blood, leading to hyperkalemia. These types of kidney problems can make it difficult to urinate and lead to dehydration.
Preeclampsia is a condition that can occur during pregnancy. This condition is typically characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, which typically indicate a kidney disorder. Drops in bodily electrolyte levels may be associated with preeclampsia and thus a possible result of hyperkalemia. In preeclampsia research, aldosterone levels are significantly lower than normal pregnancy approaching pregestational levels. If left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to severe problems for both mother and baby, including seizures, stroke, and kidney failure.
Hyperkalemia can cause nausea, vomiting and constipation. This is because the potassium mineral helps to control the muscles of the digestive system. If too much of the mineral is present in the blood, the digestive system muscles can become weak, ultimately leading to nausea, vomiting and constipation.
What Foods Contain Potassium and How Much Should Be Ingested
With risks associated with too much or too little potassium, it can feel overwhelming to ensure you are getting the proper amount of this mineral.
Normal Female Potassium Levels, ages 19+: 3.5 – 5.0 mmol/L (about 2,600 mg)
Pregnancy Potassium Levels, ages 19+: 3.6 – 5.0 mmol/L (about 2,900 mg)
Breastfeeding Potassium Levels, ages 19+: 3.6 – 5.0 mmol/L (about 2,800 mg)
During pregnancy, more potassium is needed by the body, however a wide variety of foods contain the important mineral and it is estimated that the body absorbs about 85 to 90 percent of dietary potassium, making it possible to get enough from your daily diet, unless your doctor has discussed additional supplementation requirements.
Foods high in potassium levels include dried apricots (755 mg per ½ cup), cooked lentils (731 mg per 1 cup), mashed squash (644 mg per 1 cup), raisins (618 mg per ½ cup), orange juice (496 mg per 1 cup), bananas (422 mg per 1 medium banana), raw spinach (334 mg per 2 cups), and grilled chicken breast (332 mg per 3 oz of boneless chicken) to name a few.
If potassium levels have ever been a concern or you have been diagnosed with hypokalemia or hyperkalemia it is important to discuss your concerns and potassium levels with a doctor, especially if you are pregnant. While both cases of hypokalemia and hyperkalemia can lead to very serious risks, most cases can be treated easily with diet and or medication. Discussing your options with a doctor can help you understand any potential risks and find the healthiest approaches to treatment.