Low potassium is a condition known as hypokalemia that can have severe effects on the heart, nerves and muscles of the body. It is fairly common. In fact, almost 1 in 5 hospitalized people are found to have low levels of potassium. The effects of low potassium levels can be especially dangerous during pregnancy and pose risks to both mother and baby.
Potassium is an electrolyte and mineral found in the body. Its main function is to help keep the water and electrolyte balance in the body, but it also plays a critical role in the functioning of nerves and muscles. The level of potassium in the body changes inversely with sodium levels and is also affected by aldosterone, which is a hormone made by the adrenal gland. A balanced diet generally contains a sufficient amount of potassium for proper functioning.
While insufficient dietary intake of potassium can be a cause for low potassium levels during pregnancy, a loss of potassium may occur from the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. If a pregnant woman has suffered from a significant amount of vomiting, which can be common in the early months of pregnancy when morning sickness is prevalent, or if she has had diarrhea, she may be at risk for potassium loss from the intestines. The hormone aldosterone, which naturally increases with pregnancy, can cause loss of potassium from the kidneys.
Physical signs of a low potassium level include constipation, nausea and abdominal cramping, as well as muscle weakness, muscle aches, muscle twitches and muscle cramping. This can include irregular heartbeats or heart palpitations since the heart is a muscle. In cases of extremely low potassium levels, there may be temporary paralysis, usually of the arms and legs, but can include the breathing and swallowing muscles. The normal range for potassium is 3.7 to 5.2 mEq/L (milliequivalent per liter) and can be measured by a simple blood test.
Pregnant women should eat a balanced diet in order to prevent their potassium level from dropping. Electrolyte intake should be increased to 2,000 mg per day in order to maintain the balance of electrolytes with the increased blood volume that occurs naturally during pregnancy. If a woman is diagnosed with low potassium, her doctor may encourage her to eat potassium-rich foods or may be provided with potassium supplements in order to raise the level. If the level of potassium is dangerously low, it may be restored by the intravenous administration of electrolytes.
Pregnant women with symptoms of low potassium levels should contact their health-care provider immediately to determine the cause of their symptoms. If low potassium is diagnosed and potassium must be given intravenously, it should be given extremely slowly to avoid heart irritation and potentially dangerous heart rhythms. There should be no physical exertion or strenuous activity if a low potassium level has been diagnosed, since the sweat associated with this can lead to an additional loss of potassium.