In the world of nutrition, the word “electrolyte” refers to the minerals that our body needs to perform important functions, from regulating your heartbeat and allowing our muscles to contract to transmitted nerve impulses and regulating our body fluid levels.
The electrolytes that are associated with these body functions are:
Now, because these crucial nutrients help stimulate nerve impulses throughout the body and balance our fluid levels, an electrolyte imbalance can cause a variety of serious negative symptoms, including some that are potentially life threatening.
You obtain electrolytes through a variety of different foods and certain fluids. And you lose them through exercise, sweating, high heat situations, fevers and going to the bathroom. (1)
This is why a poor diet, too little or too much exercise, and being sick are the major causes for an electrolyte imbalance. (2)
Our electrolytes major roles within the body:
- Calcium: helps with muscle contractions, nerve signaling, blood clotting, cell division, and forming/maintaining bones and teeth.
- Potassium: keeps blood pressure levels stable, regulating heart contractions, helping with muscle functions.
- Magnesium: is needed for muscle contractions, proper heart rhythms, nerve functioning, bone-building and strength, reducing anxiety, digestion, and keeping a stable protein-fluid balance.
- Sodium: helps maintain fluid balance, needed for muscle contractions, and helps with nerve signaling.
- Chloride: maintains fluid balance.
How Electrolytes Work
Electrolytes are found within bodily fluids and are given their name because they literally have an “electric charge.” They separate into positively and negatively charged ions when they’re dissolved in liquid. (3)
The reason this is important is because of how nerve reactions take place.
Your nerves signal to one another by a process of chemical exchanges dependent on oppositely charged ions, both outside and inside of your cells. (4)
Therefore, an electrolyte imbalance can be caused by a number of different factors, including short-term illnesses, medications, dehydration or an underlying chronic condition. (5)
Some of the common causes of electrolyte imbalance
- Being sick with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or high fevers can all produce fluid loss or dehydration.
- A poor diet that’s low in essential nutrients from whole foods.
- Trouble absorbing nutrients from food (malabsorption) due to intestinal or digestive issues.
- Hormonal imbalances and endocrine disorders.
- Taking certain medications including statins, hormonal replacement, antibiotic or diuretics.
- Kidney disease or damage (since the kidneys play a critical role in regulating chloride in your blood and “flushing out” potassium, magnesium and sodium).
What are some Signs and Symptoms of an Electrolyte Imbalance?
Because electrolytes have so many different roles within the body, an imbalance normally causes noticeable changes in how you feel pretty quickly.
Depending on the type and severity of the electrolyte imbalance you may experience a number of these common symptoms:
- Muscle aches, spasms, twitches and weakness
- Anxiety or Restlessness
- Frequent headaches
- Feeling super thirsty often
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
- Joint pain and numbness
- Blood pressure changes
- Dizziness, especially when standing up suddenly
Common Signs of an Electrolyte Imbalance
Changes in Heartbeat:
When potassium rises to high levels in the blood it interferes with the normal signals sent from nerves to muscles, which can result in muscles becoming weak, tingly or numb. At the same time, high potassium can impact your heartbeat and cause rapid rhythms that make you feel anxious.
Now, when calcium levels are too high it puts a strain on the cardiovascular system, therefore creating rapid changes in one’s heartbeat.
Most of us know how hard it is to fall and stay asleep when we have muscle spasms, a fast heartbeat or night sweats.
Despite feeling like you’re always tired, low magnesium levels and high potassium can cause trouble getting good rest because of ongoing pains and mental disturbances.
When dehydration occurs or potassium and magnesium levels fall to low levels, muscle weakness and spasms are usually some of the first signs.
Very low potassium levels can also cause cramps and constipation.
Low calcium levels also cause muscle spasms, cramps, abdominal muscle pain and convulsions that can become serious enough to cause a seizure.
The muscles within your digestive tract need to contract properly in order to help you go to the bathroom.
So, either high or low levels of electrolytes can result in diarrhea, constipation, or cramping.
Nausea is also sometimes caused by very low sodium levels. This same condition can be followed by headaches, disorientation and respiratory problems when it’s left unresolved.
Very high calcium levels can result in bone fractures, painful kidney stones, vomiting and constipation. The same condition can also make you feel tired and weak, with trouble concentrating.
Dizziness and Confusion:
When your sodium levels rise too drastically you can become dizzy and weak.
When this worsens, it’s possible to become even more delirious and even experience a seizure or coma.
How to Correct an Electrolyte Imbalance
Adjust Your Diet
The first step to correcting an electrolyte imbalance is to identify how it developed in the first place.
For many people, a poor diet that’s high in processed foods containing lots of sodium, but low in other electrolytes like magnesium or potassium, paves the way for a dangerous imbalance.
In many cases, a minor electrolyte imbalance can be corrected by simply making dietary changes and cutting way back on junk foods, takeout and restaurant foods, while instead cooking more fresh foods at home.
Focus your diet around whole foods — especially plenty of vegetables and fruits that provide potassium and magnesium.
Some of the best include leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cabbage, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or squash, and avocados.
A diet that’s rich in magnesium or potassium likely can be enough to solve problems like low potassium levels that can lead to blood pressure problems or magnesium deficiency that can contribute to anxiety, restlessness and muscle cramps.
To prevent dehydration and restore electrolytes, focus on these foods which are some of the most hydrating due to being very water-dense:
- Bell peppers
Another thing to consider is whether you’re consuming enough calcium.
With or without eating dairy products, it’s possible to get calcium from leafy greens like collard greens, spinach, turnip greens, kelp, kale, broccoli and okra or beans and legumes.
Now, if you can tolerate dairy you can consider adding some high-quality and ideally raw dairy products to your diet, like Greek yogurt, cultured raw cheeses and raw milk. These can provide high levels of electrolytes in addition to other important nutrients.
Monitor Your Sodium Intake
When you do consume packaged or processed foods, check the sodium levels.
Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a significant part in the body’s ability to retain or release water.
So, if your diet is very high in sodium, more water is excreted by the kidneys, and this can cause complications with balancing other electrolytes.
Here’s how sodium works within the body:
Essentially, water follows salt, which means if you increase sodium too much, water retention also occurs.
At the same time, the opposite is also true: A loss in sodium results in a loss in water, potentially causing dehydration and extreme thirst.
Hypernatremia is the name of the condition that can develop when either too much water is lost or too much sodium is obtained. This condition is more common among older adults, people with diabetes and those who eat heavily processed diets.
People can also lose a high level of sodium through diarrhea, taking certain diuretics or laxatives, and exercising to extreme levels or over-training without staying hydrated — all of which cause major issues and sometimes even life-threatening situations.
Monitoring how much sodium you consume helps keep symptoms at bay, including bloating, lethargy, dehydration, weakness, irritability and muscle twitching.
Drinking water and eating mostly whole foods (not the kinds that come in packages!) also ensures you obtain enough other important electrolytes to help balance out your system.
Drink Enough Water
Electrolyte imbalances can develop when the amount of water in your body changes, either causing dehydration or over-hydration.
Drinking enough water, without over-diluting your cells, helps stop levels of sodium and potassium from rising too high or dropping too low.
How much water is the right amount for you?
It all depends on your specific needs.
Do you exercise often? Do you live in a warm climate that results in you sweating? Do you eat a lot of water-rich fruits or vegetables, or more processed foods?
While “eight glasses a day” has always been the standard recommendation, this isn’t necessarily the best amount for every person, since factors like your diet, age, physical activity level and body size all determine how much water you need.
A good rule of thumb is to drink enough so you urinate at least every three to four hours, which for most people is around eight to ten 8-ounce glasses daily.
If you practice vigorous exercise (especially in warm/hot weather that increases sweat production) make sure to replenish with plenty of water and electrolytes like premade formulas that include sodium.
If you’ve been sick with a fever that causes vomiting or diarrhea keep in mind that you lose fluids and should increase your intake. If not, you risk developing dehydration symptoms, kidney stones, bladder infections, urinary tract stones and potentially even heart failure.
Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding also need additional fluids (about 10–13 cups every day) to stay hydrated and prevented deficiencies, as do teenagers who are growing and developing faster than people of other ages.
Is it possible to drink too much water?
Over-hydration is rare, but yes, it’s possible. Your kidneys are unable to excrete very high levels of excess water, so this can mean electrolytes within the blood can become diluted. (6)
The result might be low sodium levels, which is more common among endurance athletes who often try to compensate for sweating by drinking lots of water but not very likely to develop in someone eating the standard American diet that’s already high in salt.
Refuel After Exercise
Fluids and electrolytes, usually in the form of extra sodium, are commonly consumed by athletes during or after training. Replenishing electrolytes has been a well-known recommendation for years and is why sports drinks and enhanced waters are popular among people who are very active.
It’s important to drink enough water before, during and after exercise to keep you stay hydrated, and if you’re training for a prolonged period of time, it’s also necessary to replenish your electrolyte stores since some electrolytes (especially sodium) are lost when you sweat.
You need to drink extra water to compensate for the fluid loss of being active, about 1.5 to 2.5 cups for shorter workouts, and about three extra cups for longer workouts that are more than one hour.
Without enough water present in your body, dehydration and deficits can cause cardiovascular complications (changes to heartbeats), muscle cramping, fatigue, dizziness and confusion. (7)
Not only does this hurt your overall aerobic performance, but it can cause you to pass out or in rare circumstances even experience serious issues like a heart attack.
Both water and sodium need to be replaced after workouts to re-establish “normal” body water levels.
You don’t need to go nuts guzzling down tons of water after a workout, but make sure you eat a balanced meal afterward and have some water throughout the rest of the day.
If you notice yourself feeling dizzy or heavily cramping up, try drinking lots of fluids immediately and consuming electrolytes until you feel better.
Due to high stress levels, genetic factors or existing medical conditions, some people can be chronically deficient in some electrolytes.
Magnesium and potassium are two electrolytes that many people are low in.
Taking magnesium supplements daily can help replenish stores and prevent magnesium deficiency that’s responsible for symptoms like anxiety, trouble sleeping or muscle cramps.
Potassium and magnesium are usually present in multivitamins, just be sure you take a high-quality, food-based vitamin in order to properly absorb these electrolytes.
Here are 7 Electrolyte Drinks YOU need to avoid!
When looking at a label for bottled drinks, look for reverse osmosis water. If it doesn’t use it, it is most likely fluoridated, and fluoride binds to magnesium.
If a drink doesn’t have magnesium to begin with and uses fluoridated water, there is an increased risk of muscle cramps.
However, on a more serious note, magnesium deficiency may cause sudden cardiac death in athletes, especially those in heat or doing long endurance events.
Additionally, these “so called” electrolyte drinks are full of harmful ingredients such as sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, artificial flavors, brominated vegetable oil (bromine is a toxin and a goitrogen) which is harmful to the thyroid.
All of which are strongly linked to major chronic and metabolic health conditions. They are also known to destroy the porosity and flexibility of healthy cell membranes.