Electrolytes are essential minerals that our bodies need in order to function, and maintaining a proper balance is critical to staying healthy. Electrolyte supplements can be a quick and effective way to restore electrolytes lost during a difficult workout or a big night out, but maintaining the right levels of electrolytes on a daily basis depends largely on living a healthy lifestyle and obtaining electrolytes from natural sources. Both foods and beverages contain electrolytes; we’ve compiled a list of 13 sources for natural electrolytes that can help keep you feeling your best.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are substances that conduct electricity when dissolved in water, but in terms of nutrition and hydration, they are minerals that have either a positive or negative charge. Electrolytes can be found in your urine, sweat, and blood, and they are used by the body in order to perform many different important functions in the body, including:
- Maintaining proper hydration levels
- Promoting healthy nervous system function
- Maintaining proper muscle function, including the prevention of cramps and spasms
- Balancing internal pH levels
There are seven different electrolytes that can be found in the human body, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphate, chloride, calcium, and bicarbonate. Although each of the electrolytes is important, sodium, potassium, and magnesium are considered the three major electrolytes because they are found in the highest concentrations in the body.
Sodium is one of the most important electrolytes in the body, as it is responsible for helping to regulate the balance of fluids. Sodium is found in the body in fluid that surrounds the cells and in the blood. In addition to helping maintain the balance of fluid, sodium is also needed in order to maintain proper function of the muscles and nerves. Sodium is primarily obtained through food and drink and is usually lost through urine and sweat. Too much sodium or too little sodium in the body can be dangerous; having too much sodium in the body results in a condition called hypernatremia, while too little sodium causes a condition called hyponatremia. People with kidney issues may have difficulty regulating the amount of sodium in the body, as the kidneys are responsible for moderating the amount of sodium that is eliminated through urine.
Potassium is necessary for the regulation of many different body functions, which is why it is found in the body in such large quantities. Approximately 80 percent of the potassium in the body is found in the cells of the muscles, while the remaining 20 percent is located within red blood cells and the cells of the bones and liver. Potassium plays a critical role in helping to send and receive nerve signals, regulate muscle contractions, and regulate the balance of fluids in the body. Most Americans have a low potassium intake; less than two percent of Americans meet the U.S. daily nutritional recommendations for potassium. However, most people do not experience a potassium deficiency as a result of consuming too little of the electrolyte. Instead, most deficiencies result from losing too much potassium at once, often as the result of chronic vomiting or chronic diarrhea. Potassium excess is also usually not caused by diet. When people have too much potassium in their bodies, it is typically as a result of their bodies being unable to properly remove the electrolyte from the body through the urine, typically due to poor kidney function.
Magnesium is involved in over 600 cellular reactions. Although magnesium intake is critical to a healthy body, more than two thirds of Americans don’t consume the recommended amount through their diets. The electrolyte is used to relay signals between the brain and body, maintain a healthy heartbeat, help make DNA, regulate muscle contractions, and more. People who receive too little magnesium may experience overstimulation of the brain cells, which can cause brain damage, or overstimulation of the cells of the heart, which can cause an irregular heartbeat. Magnesium deficiency can also cause muscle spasms.
What foods are high in electrolytes?
Electrolytes are found in many common nutritious foods, including the following:
What drinks are high in electrolytes?
While many people think of sports drinks when they think of beverages that contain electrolytes, electrolytes can also be found in natural beverages, including:
What is an electrolyte imbalance and why do they occur?
Electrolyte imbalances occur when levels of electrolytes in the body are too high or too low. The body requires certain amounts of electrolytes to carry out bodily functions, such as regulating the metabolism. There are several reasons why an electrolyte imbalance can occur, including:
What are the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance?
The symptoms of electrolyte imbalance vary depending on whether a person has too much or too little of a specific electrolyte and how high or low the level is. Patients may not experience significant symptoms when the electrolyte imbalance is small, but the symptoms can gradually appear more over time as the imbalance becomes more severe. Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance may include:
- Muscle cramps, twitching, or spasms
- Irregular or fast heartbeat
- Extreme thirst
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Change in blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Confusion or disorientation
How can electrolyte imbalance be prevented?
Living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent an electrolyte imbalance. Eating a healthy diet rich in the foods and beverages listed above is the first step in ensuring that your electrolytes stay balanced. Other ways to prevent electrolyte imbalance include:
- Drink plenty of water, but do not overdo it. Drinking too much water can also cause an electrolyte imbalance.
- Use salt in moderation. While table salt does provide sodium, eating too much can also cause an electrolyte imbalance.
- Do not exercise indoors without air conditioning, especially if you have a tendency to sweat excessively.
- Discuss any prescription or over the counter medications that you are taking with your doctor and double check to make sure that they are not causing an imbalance, particularly if you have experienced one recently.
- Over the counter diuretics should be used sparingly and not for an extended period of time unless your doctor directs you to do so.
- Avoid exercising strenuously outside during the hottest hours of the day.
- Replace fluids that are lost during exercise by drinking water or an electrolyte supplement after intense or prolonged periods of exercise.