People used to talk about electrolytes like only marathoners needed to worry about them. But with the rise of low-carb diets like keto, and considering the fact that most Americans fall short on essential nutrients, they’re getting more attention now than ever before. Here’s what you need to know about these important minerals.
What Are Electrolytes?
A group of minerals including sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, chloride, and magnesium, electrolytes are crucial for a number of functions within the body.
“Electrolytes are ionic conductors of electrical current in the body,” says Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., the author of Invisible Minerals. Translation: They carry the electrical energy your muscles need to contract (and relax) and your nerves need to transmit signals.
Why Electrolytes Matter
Because electrolytes help regulate muscle and nerve function, your body needs them to do, well, pretty much everything.
Plus, electrolytes lead water in and out of the cells, so they also help keep you hydrated, says Dean. If electrolytes—and cellular hydration levels—are off, oversaturated cells can literally burst, while dehydrated cells can shrivel up.
As any sports drink commercial will tell you, electrolytes are especially important for our physical performance. “Calcium and potassium work synergistically for smooth muscle contraction, while magnesium is key for muscle relaxation and recovery,” Dean explains.
The average adult needs 500 milligrams of sodium (which also covers chloride), 1,600 to 2,000 milligrams of potassium, 400 to 420 milligrams of magnesium, and 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day.
The Effects Of Electrolyte Imbalances
To function properly, our body requires a specific balance of these different electrolytes. For example, “too much calcium without enough magnesium can cause muscle spasms, cramps, and muscle fatigue,” says Dean.
While some people may not realize they have low or imbalanced electrolyte levels, typical warning signs of electrolyte issues include:
- Fluid retention
- Muscle spasms or twitching
- Muscle weakness
“People with severe deficiencies or specific underlying medical problems may experience more severe symptoms, such as damage to the heart or nervous system, seizures, or even death without replenishment and medical treatment,” adds Shah.
While extreme electrolyte deficiencies are rare, since these minerals dissolve in water, we do lose them in sweat, urine, and other bodily fluids.
Who’s At Risk For Low Electrolyte Levels?
Given the nature of electrolytes—and how our bodies store them—there are a few groups of people particularly at-risk for low levels.
First: heavy sweaters. “If you sweat a lot while working out (and exercise for long periods or in seriously hot conditions), you could be at risk for electrolyte deficiencies,” explains Shah. (Looking at you, endurance athletes!)
Another group typically low in electrolytes: keto dieters. Because the super-low-carb diet depletes the body’s glycogen stores (and accompanying water stores), it causes the body to excrete a lot of water. Without as much water retention, keto dieters have to constantly replenish electrolytes or face deficiency.
Not to mention, anyone in the throes of a stomach bug may also face low electrolyte levels. “If you’re sick and experiencing a lot of vomiting or diarrhea, you also risk losing too many electrolytes,” says Shah.
One more group at risk: people who take medications that act as diuretics, which flush water from the body.
How To Up Your Electrolyte Intake
Given how important electrolytes are for our everyday health, it’s no surprise that they’re pretty easy to find in food, says Chirag Shah, M.D., co-founder of Accesa Labs, a walk-in blood testing lab.
If you eat plenty of plant-based foods—like bananas, potatoes, leafy greens, and seeds—as Mother Nature intended, you shouldn’t have much trouble meeting your needs.
Case in point: Half a cup of kidney beans pack close to 30 percent of your daily potassium needs.
However, if you don’t eat the recommended daily servings of fruits and veggies, you may need help keeping electrolytes balanced.
Supplementing With Electrolytes
If you need to up your electrolyte intake (whether you’re logging major miles or living the keto life), a supplement can help. Though you’ll find them in capsule form, electrolytes are especially popular as powdered or liquid drink mixes.
Whatever form you choose, look for an electrolyte supplement that contains all of the electrolytes. Many—including certain classic sports drinks—contain just sodium and sugar, says Dean. They don’t provide the magnesium and potassium we also need, too.
Then, make sure that product is also free of artificial dyes and sweeteners, and processed sugars or syrups. (True Athlete’s Balanced Hydration powder, available in Lemon Lime andFruit Punch, is a quality, all-natural option.)
“You can also add a quarter teaspoon of sea salt to every liter of your drinking water” to DIY your own electrolyte solution, Dean suggests. High-quality sea salt contains upwards of 60 trace minerals and can help you stay hydrated in a pinch.
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