Easing Swelling During Pregnancy: the Protein-Salt Connection

It's hot, and you're pregnant. VERY pregnant. If you weren't uncomfortable enough, one morning you wake up to find that your calves have disappeared into full-blown cankles, and your feet have puffed up like marshmallows. Ouch, mama!

Swelling during pregnancy is something I encounter frequently in my clients.  It's one of the most common complaints, actually, especially during the summer.

Here's what to do to ease those puffy legs, feet, and ankles (and sometimes hands). The condition is called "Edema."

First of all, it's important to rule out the possibility of a bigger problem. If you suddenly find you are puffing up like a water balloon, call your doctor or midwife immediately and let them know, and ask to have your blood pressure checked. Edema + elevated blood pressure is cause for concern, because it could be signs of pre-eclampsia, a life threatening condition. If the swelling is in your face and your hands as well, and is sudden and rapid, call your prenatal care provider immediately! Usually pre-eclampsia is confirmed by a third factor: protein in your urine. So make sure you visit your prenatal care provider to have your blood pressure and protein checked. (We will always ask you to do this if we discover new puffiness since your last prenatal massage session!)

Swelling, as my midwife told me, is your body's way of making "natural IV bags" prior to delivery. This is why it usually comes on during the last 6 weeks of your pregnancy. It can also be caused by less-than-optimal blood volume during pregnancy, which has SO much to do with what you are eating.

Many pregnant women get picky about food and favor bland carbohydrates or sugary foods. However, it is critical that you get enough PROTEIN and SALT in your diet if you want to combat swelling.

If your doc says all is well with the blood pressure, there can be two other reasons for the edema:

1. Mechanical. Basically, what this means is that the weight of your baby and your uterus is pressing down on your pelvis in such a way that it is slowing circulation of blood and lymph in your lower extremities (legs, ankles, feet.) This may continue to worsen as your belly grows. Massage therapy can certainly help relieve the symptoms and encourage the movement of that fluid upwards and out.

2. Blood Chemistry. Everything you eat determines your blood chemistry. More on this in a sec, but I just gotta say I'm surprised to learn that many docs and midwives don't know about this, because what my clients tell me is that they are told to just "drink more water." That's helpful, but not the total solution.

My secret? Dr. Brewer's Diet.

Basically, here's what happens from a blood chemistry perspective. According to an article at www.drbrewerpregnancydiet.com,

"Your liver makes albumin out of the protein that you eat. Albumin and salt have osmotic pressure which is needed to hold fluids in your blood circulation. The swelling that you see implies that you do not have enough albumin and salt to hold the fluids in your circulatory system, which is resulting in the fluids leaking out into your tissues--in your ankles, for example. Eating additional protein and calories, and salting your food to taste should provide additional osmotic pressure and pull the extra fluids out of your tissues and back into your circulation. Once this fluid has returned to your blood stream, any extra fluid that you don't need will be excreted by your kidneys".

Essentially what this means is that when you don't have enough protein and salt in your blood, the water in your bloodstream leaks out into the surrounding tissues. Therefore, this kind of normal swelling can be remedied by upping your intake of protein and salt. Dr. Brewer recommends taking protein every hour that you are awake, with salt to taste.

I recommend you get a turkey and cook it, or one of those rotisserie chickens from the health food store. Or perhaps a bag of frozen, high-quality chicken tenderloins. Do NOT buy lunch meat. This is not real meat. You want the real meat, the real bird.  You could also try good quality tuna, or wild Alaskan salmon. Hard boiled eggs may work as well, if you can tolerate them. Have a bite of your preferred protein once an hour, for every hour that you are awake, and salt it to taste with sea salt or mineral salt. (I don't recommend table salt - mineral salt is so much better for you and I've heard table salt is toxic. I don't ever use it, personally.)

If you are REALLY puffed up and super-uncomfortable, eat NOTHING but salted protein for an entire day and see what happens.

My clients who have done this have had excellent results. One client who I saw weekly at the end of her pregnancy told me that she had lost FIVE POUNDS during that week - of water. Can you imagine carrying around five extra pounds of water, in your ankles? Ouch. She sent photos (below) to prove it!

Snoop around Dr. Brewer's website for other good info.

Hope that helps! Post your success stories here!


(Disclaimer: be sure to consult with your prenatal care provider before making any dietary changes during pregnancy. You may have to turn them on to Dr. Brewer's information if they don't know about it!)