Electrolytes 101 (+ Symptoms of an Electrolyte Imbalance)
Most people only know that electrolytes are something that need to be replenished after a particularly tough workout. And while this is certainly true, there’s a lot more to know about what electrolytes are and the important roles they play in the body, and what the best sources are.
Unfortunately, most athletes or just the average gym-goer opt for commercial sports drinks that claim to replenish electrolytes, but really are packed full of chemicals, additives and refined sugars that can actually undermine optimal health. There are more natural and much more effective ways to replenish electrolytes, not to mention (and perhaps more importantly) to prevent imbalances, in the first place.
What Are Electrolytes?: The Definition
According to the US National Library of Medicine, electrolytes are “minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge.” They go on to list the major ways in which electrolytes affect how the body functions, and what makes them so critical for human health (1):
- The amount of water in your body
- The acidity of your blood (pH)
- Your muscle function
- Other important processes
The most common electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, chloride, sodium and potassium. They also come in the form of acids or salts, and can be measured in a blood test.
How Do Electrolytes Work?
Infants are born with and retain about 80% of their organism in the form of water. Adults come in closer to around 60%. As you age, this number continues to drop. And this fluid isn’t just water, it also contains cells, proteins, glucose and electrolytes. Electrolytes come from liquids and foods that you consume, and take on a negative or positive charge when they are dissolved in your bodily fluids.
Fascinatingly, these electrical charges enable them to conduct electricity and move electric charges through the body in the form of signals, therefore playing their important role in the above-mentioned functions (brain, muscles, cells, etc).
What Do Electrolytes Do?
Not only is magnesium essential for exercise performance (3) and for fighting depression (4), but it also plays a crucial role as an electrolyte. Magnesium works to regulate blood glucose levels, strengthen the immune system and contributes to nerve and muscle function.
Sodium helps to control fluids in the body, therefore controlling blood pressure. It is also very important for nerve and muscle function. In fact, a too-low salt intake is actually quite dangerous, and has been linked with heart disease (5), heart failure (6) and type 2 diabetes (7). Adding salt to taste in foods is almost never problematic (on the contrary, it is important for health); however, processed and packaged foods with high sodium contents definitely can be.
Chloride helps with healthy digestion, balances electrolytes and plays the important role of maintaining a healthy pH level (acidity vs. alkalinity). Chloride is the other ingredient in salt (alongside sodium) so the same rules apply as to why adequate salt intake is important for health.
Potassium is an electrolyte that also works to regulate blood pressure and the heart, and it works alongside calcium to support and maintain healthy bones. Potassium is a must for muscle contractions, and is commonly supplemented in food form with bananas. You might be surprised to know that beet greens, lima beans, sweet potatoes and swiss chard are all higher in potassium than bananas (8).
[Related: 15 Benefits of Eating Bananas]
Calcium is best known for supporting healthy teeth and bones (along with potassium), but it also carries out the important tasks of nerve impulses and muscle movements, along with contributing to proper blood clotting.
Electrolyte Imbalance: What Are the Symptoms?
Ideally, 40% of bodily fluids should remain inside of the cells, and 20% should remain outside. When we say that electrolytes help to control fluid balance, this is what we are referring to. This balance can be thrown off if you are too many or too few minerals and electrolytes, and is most commonly caused by the following situations:
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Medications such as antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs or diuretics
- Kidney disease
In extreme cases, you’d probably know if you were experiencing an electrolyte imbalance because you’d feel nauseas, be extremely fatigued, and be retaining a lot of water (water weight). When our electrolytes are out of balance they can cause a shift in fluid balance, which often makes us retain water (9).
If you or anyone else you know is experiencing these symptoms along with mental confusion, irregular heartbeat, extremely weak muscles, chest pain or even seizures, call 911 immediately. Severe electrolyte imbalance is no joke, and medical intervention is necessary in extreme cases.
How Do I Keep My Electrolytes Balanced?
In order to avoid the situations just mentioned, be sure to follow some simple, preventative guidelines. First of all, if you live in a hot climate and/or engage in a lot of sweat-inducing exercise (and even more-so if both apply to you), you’ll need to take extra care in maintaining proper electrolyte balance (10).
It’s also important to tailor your electrolyte intake to your water intake. If you drink tons of water, you might need to get even more electrolytes (11). And the opposite also applies: if you get a lot of electrolytes through supplements or salty foods and not much water, you can also experience electrolyte imbalance.
Before intense exercise, be sure to hydrate well enough that your urine is clear to light yellow. Drink an all natural sports drink such as coconut water or an easy, at-home recipe, and read more about why drinks like Gatorade and other commercial options do more harm than good, here.
Drink when you’re thirsty, but you do not need to constantly be chugging water throughout the day. If you get to the point of extreme thirst, you’ve probably ignored lesser signals from the body to drink water, and are already approaching dehydration. Drink small amounts of water continuously throughout the day.
And remember to never ignore serious signs that your electrolyte balance might be off, and seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing any of the extreme symptoms mentioned in this article. In general, staying hydrated, getting adequate salt intake (but avoiding processed foods with added sodium), and using a natural electrolyte boosting drink like coconut water with intense physical activity should do the trick.