If you’ve ever felt particularly weak after an intense workout or you’ve become dehydrated from a bout of the flu, you probably have a pretty good idea what an electrolyte imbalance feels like.
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. They are essential to many functions in the body, including nerve impulses, muscle contractions, pH regulation, hydration, and many other metabolic processes. Too little or too much of these substances in the body could make a person seriously ill and even lead to death.
The good news is that with proper nutrition and water intake, most people don’t need to worry about electrolyte imbalances. People who are very active, such as athletes, do need to make sure that they are consuming enough electrolytes to replace the ones lost through sweat.
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What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are chemicals that carry a positive or negative electric charge. They come in the form of minerals that we consume and are found in our blood, sweat, urine, and other bodily fluids. In other words, each time you sweat, urinate, vomit, or bleed, you lose electrolytes.
The following electrolytes found in the human body each serve a unique and important role.
Sodium is responsible for regulating fluid levels in the body. It is involved in balancing blood volume, blood pressure, pH, and the osmotic equilibrium between cells. Wherever sodium goes, water follows.
When there is too much or too little sodium in the body, the cells begin to malfunction. In extreme cases, this can lead to death.
Found most abundant inside the cells of your body, potassium plays an important role in nerve transmission, muscle contractions, and glucose metabolism. It works in tandem with sodium to keep a healthy balance of fluids in the cells.
Too little potassium and you’re at risk of arrhythmia, high blood pressure, kidney stones, muscle cramps, constipation, and glucose intolerance.
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You probably already know that calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth. In fact, 99 percent of the calcium in your body is used for that purpose, but the remainder works as an electrolyte. Calcium helps to regulate cell function, heartbeat, and blood clotting.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, and it is involved in many metabolic functions. It helps to maintain normal nerve and muscle function, regulates heart rate, supports the immune system, and keeps bones strong.
The following signs and symptoms are common with magnesium deficiency:
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness and cramping
- Mental disorders
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Digestive problems
Chloride helps to maintain the balance of fluids inside and outside of the cells in your body. It also plays a role in regulating blood volume, blood pressure, pH, and body fluids.
Phosphate is a charged particle that contains the mineral phosphorus and oxygen. Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in the body, after calcium. It is needed to build bones and teeth, for nerve function, and for muscle contraction.
Bicarbonate is responsible for regulating pH in the small intestine. It is an electrolyte, but not one that we get from the foods we eat. Bicarbonate is a byproduct of the body’s metabolism, meaning that it is made in the body.
These essential minerals keep the body in full working condition. Too much or too little of any of them, and we suffer some serious consequences.
Where Do We Get Electrolytes From?
If you are in good health overall, and you eat a balanced diet, you should have no problems with electrolyte imbalance under normal circumstances. Just make sure to replenish your stores after a workout or if you are sick with vomiting or diarrhea.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with essential minerals, many of which are the electrolytes that we need in our bodies such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. Dairy products, fish, seafood, and coconut water are also excellent sources of electrolytes.
Some people drink water or energy drinks that are infused with electrolytes to ensure that they get enough. For most people, this isn’t necessary, especially if one eats a balanced and varied diet. However, these supplements can come in handy for people who are sick with vomiting or diarrhea, or for people who are training for or competing in athletic events.
How to Get More Electrolytes
Upgrade your water by infusing it with fruit, herbs, and spices. Not only will this add a sweet, refreshing, or spicy kick to your water, it’ll also add some extra electrolytes.
For a refreshing infused water recipe, use ingredients like lemon, mint, and cucumber. For sweet-flavored water, add any combination of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, mint leaves, and lemon verbena. Spice up your water by adding slices of ginger root, turmeric root, cloves, cinnamon, lime, and lemon.
Replace regular table salt with sea salt for added electrolytes. Himalayan and Celtic sea salts are available in most grocery stores and provide not only sodium, but magnesium, calcium, and potassium as well.
If you’re worried about your electrolyte levels, add a pinch of sea salt to your water, or sprinkle a little on top of an avocado or a baked sweet potato, both of which are rich in essential minerals potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
If you have a juicer or a blender at home, vegetable and fruit-based drinks are a healthy and efficient way to replace lost electrolytes. For an extra boost, add coconut water to your shakes. It is full of electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Bone broth is an excellent source of electrolytes; it contains calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium. You can up your electrolytes by simply having a steaming-hot bowl of bone broth, or by using bone broth as an ingredient when cooking other foods, such as soups, stews, and grains.
Everyone needs to have a proper balance of electrolytes in order to function. Too much or too little of any electrolyte can have serious consequences. As long as you are staying hydrated and eating a varied and healthy diet, you shouldn’t need to worry about an electrolyte imbalance. People who are very active or those at risk for dehydration because of illness should pay special attention and replace lost electrolytes through infused water, juice, or electrolyte-rich foods.