Electrolytes 101: What Are Electrolytes and What Do They Do?
We often hear about the importance of electrolytes, especially regarding exercise and physical activity—but what exactly are electrolytes?
In an attempt to restore electrolytes, people often turn to sports drinks with harmful chemicals in them. Though the intention is to take care of their health, most of these drinks do the opposite. Ingredients like processed sugar, artificial dyes, and preservatives found in many sports drinks are known to have adverse health effects. (1, 2)
Thankfully, there are more healthy and natural ways to fuel your body with electrolytes. In this article, we discuss what electrolytes are and how to get natural electrolytes in your diet.
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals that are vital to many functions in the body. The electrolytes definition given by Cleveland Health Clinic is:
“Electrolytes are substances that have a natural positive or negative electrical charge when dissolved in water. They help your body regulate chemical reactions, maintain the balance between fluids inside and outside your cells, and more.” (3)
The essential electrolyte minerals are:
Our bodies are roughly 60% water, and nearly every fluid and cell in the body contains electrolytes. (4) Electrolytes help to regulate chemical reactions and maintain the balance of fluids inside and outside of cells—among numerous other activities in the body.
We naturally get electrolytes from the food and beverages that we consume. Excess electrolytes in the body are filtered by the kidneys and eliminated in our urine. Electrolytes are also lost through the body when we sweat—hence the connection between electrolytes and exercise.
What Do Electrolytes Do?
Electrolytes are essential for a variety of different roles in the body. These minerals are used by your cells to conduct electrical charges—which help with chemical reactions and muscle contractions. Every time you move a muscle, it is because of electrolytes that your body is able to make those muscle contractions.
According to Cleveland Health Clinic:
“The key principle that electrolytes rely on is that certain chemical elements can naturally hold a positive or a negative electrical charge. When those elements are dissolved in a liquid, that liquid can then conduct electricity.” (3)
Salt water is an excellent example of this conductivity. Salt is made up of two minerals, sodium and chlorine, which have positive and negative charges, respectively. When they are combined together, their charges are neutralized and balanced out. When salt is dissolved in water, the sodium and chlorine atoms split and return to positively and negatively charged atoms.
The fundamental role of electrolytes is to help your body maintain a chemical and electrical balance.
Low Electrolytes Symptoms
When your body is low in electrolytes, it cannot carry out its necessary chemical and electrical processes as effectively. When significantly depleted of electrolytes, the body begins to break down, and diseases and poor health can manifest as a result. (5)
Not only can low amounts of electrolytes lead to health issues, but an imbalance of electrolytes can also cause health issues to manifest. For example, high potassium levels can cause many adverse health effects, as can high sodium levels. Likewise, low sodium or low potassium levels can also be harmful.
Many electrolytes work as antagonistic pairs, meaning that when one is high, the other is low. Sodium and potassium are prime examples of this. The role of sodium is to maintain fluid outside of cells, whereas potassium maintains fluid inside cells. Too much sodium in the diet can draw fluids out of cells and lead to cellular dehydration, as well as water retention. On the other hand, too much potassium can affect the heart and may even be life-threatening.
Though these are essential minerals, we can see that a balance of these minerals is crucial to health, whereas excesses or deficiencies of any electrolyte can be detrimental to health.
This may seem confusing and overwhelming at first as if we have to personally figure out how to maintain the right electrolyte balance for ourselves. While the foods, beverages, and supplements we consume do play a role in our electrolyte balance, our body is designed with built-in systems to maintain this balance—primarily the renal system.
We can, however, cause issues when we take too many isolated electrolyte supplements or take high doses of certain minerals. For example, supplementing with potassium, though potentially beneficial, increases the risk of high potassium levels—mainly when consumed at high doses. For this reason, it is recommended to get your electrolytes from natural sources and, when supplementing, to always follow the recommended dosages on the product label.
Low electrolyte symptoms, high electrolyte symptoms, and electrolyte imbalances are often all referred to as “electrolyte imbalances”—though when a specific electrolyte is out of balance, the condition can be identified as such (for example, high-potassium symptoms or low-potassium symptoms). In general, the common symptoms of electrolyte imbalances include:
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
- Irregular heart rate
- Numbness or tingling in the limbs or extremities (3)
Certain activities or conditions may also increase your need for electrolytes. For example, excessive exercise and profuse sweating can lead to electrolyte loss and can increase the need for electrolyte consumption—as can other forms of significant fluid loss like dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting, or excessive urination. (6)
How to Restore Electrolytes
It is clear that electrolytes are essential for our health and important to get in our diet—but how exactly do we get electrolytes? What has electrolytes, and what are some common foods with electrolytes?
As mentioned above, many people turn to sports drinks as a source of electrolytes. While these drinks do have added electrolytes in them—mainly sodium and potassium—they also have a range of harmful ingredients in them. The millions (perhaps billions) of dollars invested in marketing have given people the impression that they are beneficial for health. In situations where there is significant electrolyte loss, they may be able to restore electrolyte balance, but there are far better, healthier options to get natural electrolytes than turning to sugary, chemical-laden sports drinks.
Some of the best natural sources of electrolytes include:
- Himalayan pink salt
- Fruits like berries, melons, grapes, oranges, bananas
- Vegetables like broccoli, potatoes, kale, spinach, lettuce, and tomatoes
- Legumes like beans, lentils, peanuts, soybeans
- Nuts like almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts
- Seeds like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
And numerous other foods can provide a source for how to get electrolytes in your diet. Our Fulvic Acid & Trace Ocean Minerals supplement, as well as our Ionic Magnesium Tonic, are also a great source of natural electrolytes that you can add to your water for a quick and easy way to restore electrolytes.
We all need electrolytes in our diet, but exactly how many we need depends on a variety of factors like age, physical activity, climate, and water consumption.
In most cases, staying hydrated and eating a variety of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, will help you meet your electrolyte needs—though you may need to focus more on restoring electrolytes after an intense workout or if you are sick with symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting.
You can also supplement with natural electrolyte supplements to replenish electrolytes and to replace sports drinks.
Electrolytes are essential minerals that are vital to many functions in the body. Among their many benefits, electrolytes' primary role is maintaining chemical and electrical balance in our bodies. It is because of electrolytes that our bodies are able to carry out the many necessary chemical and electrical processes that occur from moment to moment—such as muscle contractions, sending nerve signals, keeping cells functioning, and much, much more.
Maintaining electrolyte balance is essential to our health—and while our body does the majority of the work in maintaining this balance, we still need to give our bodies the fuel that they need to carry out this important task.
By staying hydrated and eating a variety of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds we can give our bodies all of the electrolytes they need. We can also add small amounts of Himalayan salt or Trace Ocean Minerals to our water for an additional electrolyte boost.
Make sure you are giving your body plenty of electrolytes so it can carry out its many functions, and if you are noticing any of the symptoms of electrolyte imbalances mentioned above, talk to your doctor so you can properly diagnose and treat the imbalance.