Potassium, like all minerals, has certain essential functions. It regulates fluids and other minerals in and out of cells, maintains blood pressure, contracts muscles, and even transmits electric nerve impulses. Plus, like most minerals, a deficiency can lead to severe consequences. Specifically, a deficiency in potassium manifests as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and overall weakness.
While potassium is important for every human body, it’s especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Potassium helps reduce fluid retention, combats electrolyte imbalance, and eases restless leg syndrome and cramps, all of which are major causes of discomfort during pregnancy.
The challenge arises in regards to consumption of potassium. It’s not about getting more of the mineral. Instead, the efficacy relies on finding the perfect balance. This is why it’s so important to work with your nutritionist or medical practitioner to make sure you’re hitting that goldilocks amount: not too much, not too little, but just the right amount.
What is Potassium
Potassium is a mineral, a “naturally occurring inorganic solid, with a definite chemical composition, and an ordered atomic arrangement.” The importance of potassium partially lies in its duties within the body, but also in the fact that it’s “the third most abundant mineral in the body.” The major role of potassium is to help regulate body fluid, yet it also “[sends] nerve signals and [regulates] muscle contractions.” Your body is riddled with potassium, from your red blood cells to your muscles, bones, and liver.
Potassium “functions as an electrolyte” carrying a positive charge which your body uses “to manage a variety of processes.” Dramatic fluctuations in your potassium levels, whether it’s too much or too little, has the ability to affect many of your crucial system functions.
Hypokalemia versus Hyperkalemia
Potassium deficiency is referred to as hypokalemia and means potassium blood levels have dipped below 3.5 mmol per liter. While it’s not impossible to suffer from hypokalemia from poor diet, it’s very rare. Potassium deficiency is usually caused by a sudden loss of fluid such as during “chronic vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating and blood loss.” Usual symptoms of a potassium deficiency include fatigue, weakness, muscle cramps (also muscle aches, spasms, and stiffness), heart palpitations, tingling and numbness most commonly in your hands, arms, legs, and feet, breathing difficulties, and even digestive problems.
On the other hand, when there’s too much potassium in your blood, it’s referred to as hyperkalemia. While your kidneys are hard at work regulating the balance of potassium, certain things can throw that balance off including kidney failure, dehydration, internal bleeding, type 1 diabetes, certain medications, alcohol, or even supplement usage. Usual symptoms of too much potassium mimic those of a deficiency with fatigue, weakness, tingling and numbness, chest pain and heart palpitations, and nausea and vomiting.
No matter the symptoms, it’s incredibly important to seek medical help if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms!
Potassium and Pregnancy
Potassium is tightly interwoven with a healthy pregnancy. As mom’s body grows in size, so does her need for more potassium. Yet, we once again run into the issue of balance. Too little and you run into hypokalemia and too much and you run into hyperkalemia. Avoiding hyperkalemia is much easier, while avoiding hypokalemia may pose a challenge.
Causes of Hypokalemia During Pregnancy
While hyperkalemia (too much potassium in the blood) shares the same causes whether you’re pregnant or not, hypokalemia (too little potassium) can be caused by a few different factors that are spurred by pregnancy. Loss of fluids is the one shared cause due to the fact that most women will experience vomiting and diarrhea due to morning sickness.
Yet, there are some medications that doctors prescribe pregnant mothers that can spur a dip in potassium levels. For instance, some pregnant women will be prescribed diuretics, “medicines used for treating high blood pressure”, which spurs an increase in urination and loss of fluids. Others may need to take antibiotics, such as gentamicin and carbenicillin, which are known to cause hypokalemia. Lastly, an increased level of aldosterone, a “steroid hormone secreted by [the] adrenal glands”, has been linked to hypokalemia.
How Does Potassium Affect Pregnancy
To put it simply, getting the right amount of potassium is essential for an unborn baby and a pregnant mom. Hyperkalemia or hypokalemia are both incredibly dangerous conditions.
Hypokalemia can cause multiple serious conditions such as hypokalemic periodic paralysis, temporary paralysis that generally affects arms and legs, cardiac dysrhythmias, which are irregular heartbeats that may lead to “cardiac arrest or lung paralysis,” high blood pressure, and kidney failure. Hyperkalemia, when left untreated, leads to extremely dangerous health conditions, ultimately stopping the heart. With that said, cases of hyperkalemia developing during pregnancy are somewhat rare as they are generally caused by larger issues that are discovered beforehand and can be regulated. These causes include kidney failure, drug and alcohol consumption, severe dehydration, and type 1 diabetes.
Finding the Goldilocks of Potassium During Pregnancy
During pregnancy, “your blood volume expands by up to 50 percent,” meaning you and your body need to find a new balance. The amount of potassium necessary for balance changes not just during pregnancy, but by trimester, as mom’s body grows, as well as during lactation after childbirth. For example, the normal body should have around 3.4 to 5 millimoles per litre (mmol) of potassium in the blood, but “during the first-trimester potassium [should be] in the range of 3.6 to 5, second trimester 3.3 to 5, and third trimester 3.3 to 5.1.”
Of course, I’m going to emphasize the same point again, every human body is different. Therefore, don’t rely on general amounts. Working with a nutritionist or doctor is incredibly important. A professional will not only be able to determine what your current levels are at, but they will also be able to help you regulate the exact amounts you need going forward.
Avo Paletas/One Green Planet
For mamas-to-be, finding natural plant-based sources of the essential vitamins and minerals is an important step for both your and your baby’s health. When it comes to potassium, there a lot of options to choose from. A broad range of food choices comes in super handy during that first trimester when your aversion to certain foods is amplified. You may be unable to stomach those potassium-rich parsnips, but what about the sweet and light tang of oranges?
Quinoa and White Bean Burger/One Green Planet
Beans, bean the magical fruit! These legumes are a great addition to any plant-based diet, especially if you’re expecting. Not only do they offer a great source of dietary fiber (one cup offers over 12 grams), but they are also a great source of potassium. One cup of mature, canned white beans has 1189 milligrams of potassium! Plus, they have minimal amounts of sugar, which is always a plus.
Try out a few of these white bean recipes: Quinoa and White Bean Burger, Smoky, White Bean and Potato Stew, White Bean Cinnamon Muffins, Swedish Veggie Meatballs, or these Flaky Biscuits With Rosemary Butter.
Caffeine-Free Pink Latte/One Green Planet
If you’re a regular plant-based eater, then you’ve most likely either enjoyed or learned to avoid beets. For some reason, this deep root veggie is a hate it or love it food. With that said, if you’re looking to up your potassium intake, beets are a great way to do it. A half cup of beet has 259 milligrams of potassium, while also providing a great source of folate, an essential vitamin for pregnant moms. With that said, it’s important to note that beets are also rich in sugar. That same half cup has 6.8 grams of sugar (meaning a full cup has over 12 grams!). Therefore, consume with care.
Try out a few of these beet-rich recipes: Caffeine-Free Pink Latte, Orange Vinaigrette Beetroot Salad, Mushroom, Beet, and Black Bean Burger, Beet Pepperoni Pizza, or these Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies.
Swiss Chard Enchiladas With Avocado Cream/One Green Planet
Once again, we turn to green leafy veggies! I admit I can’t get through one article without bringing these superfoods up. When it comes to potassium, swiss chard is a great plant-based source. One cup of raw swiss chard has 136 milligrams of potassium, while also providing cramp-stopping magnesium and pregnancy essential vitamins such as vitamins K and A. Swiss chard is not as sweet as its other leafy green counterparts, therefore mixing this veggie with other stronger flavors is a great way to consume it!
Try out a few of these swiss chard-friendly recipes: Coconut Greens and Chickpea Loaded Sweet Potato, Hearty 15-Bean and Vegetable Soup, Roasted Butternut Squash Pizza With Garlic Cashew Cheese, Spicy Korean Red Pepper Noodles, or these Swiss Chard Enchiladas With Avocado Cream.
An essential component of balancing potassium levels is staying hydrated. If you’re not a plain-water drinker, try out coconut water or coconut milk. Sourced from coconuts, these beverages are loaded with an assortment of essential vitamin and minerals. One cup of coconut water has a whopping 600 milligrams of potassium, while the same amount of coconut milk as 631 milligrams. Plus, Coconut water and milk both offer saturated fat (a healthy fat in small amounts), dietary fiber (which keeps that digestive system healthy), and magnesium (a mineral that promotes sleep and alleviates muscle cramps).
For more potassium-rich recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!