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What to Know About Electrolytes

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What to Know About Electrolytes
Fresh fruit and vegetable high in electrolytes. Healthy food sources of electrolytes. Foods to naturally replenish electrolytes. Banana spinach pomegranate beans mango table salt avocado coconut water

Electrolytes probably sound at least vaguely familiar to you. Maybe you think of them as something that athletes need to replenish after a vigorous competition. While that’s true for many athletes, are they something that you need to think about? Should you be swigging down neon-colored sports drinks after your daily workouts? Read on to learn more about electrolytes.

What are electrolytes and what do they do?

Electrolytes are minerals in the body that have an electric charge. They’re found in the blood, urine, tissues, and other body fluids. Electrolytes are essential for:

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  • Balancing the amount of water in the body
  • Balancing the body’s acid/base level (also called pH)
  • Moving nutrients into cells
  • Moving wastes out of cells
  • Regulating how the nerves, muscles, heart, and brain work

Sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, magnesium, and bicarbonate are electrolytes. You get electrolytes from the foods you eat and the fluids that you drink.

What do each of the electrolytes do?

Here’s a rundown of what each of the electrolytes do in the body:

Sodium

Helps maintain normal blood pressure, supports nerve and muscle function, and regulates fluid balance

Potassium

Regulates heartbeat, helps nerve function, helps muscle contraction, moves nutrients into cells and wastes out of cells

Calcium

Regulates muscle contraction, regulates heartbeat, helps with blood clotting, helps build bones, and keeps teeth healthy

Chloride

Works with other electrolytes to keep the acid-base balance, helps move fluid in and out of cells, helps maintain blood pressure

Phosphate

Helps form bone and teeth, helps with nerve function, helps with muscle contraction

Magnesium

Regulates blood pressure, regulates muscle and nerve function, regulates blood sugar, makes protein, bone, and DNA

Bicarbonate

Maintains acid-base balance

Athletes are often focused on maintaining the right balance of electrolytes in order to enhance physical performance.

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How are fluids and electrolytes regulated in the body?

The kidneys regulate bodily fluids through the amount of water that is excreted in the urine. If fluid conservation is the goal, the kidneys make urine that is concentrated; but if there is excess fluid in the body, the kidneys make urine that is very dilute. The kidneys also conserve sodium, which means that adults don’t need to consume that much sodium. But a lot of potassium is lost through the urine, so we need to consume enough potassium every day through the foods and beverages that we consume.

What causes electrolytes to be imbalanced?

The balance of electrolytes in the body can be upset — meaning, electrolytes might be too high or too low. When electrolytes are too low, it’s often due to a loss of fluids, such as excessive sweating during exercise, or fluid loss due to diarrhea and/or vomiting.

Some medicines may affect fluid balance and electrolytes in the body. These include:

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  • Diuretics
  • Blood pressure medicines
  • Laxatives
  • Antacids
  • Antihistamines
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
  • Chemotherapy medicines

Having certain heart, kidney, or liver disorders, an eating disorder, alcoholism, and some forms of cancer can impact electrolyte balance, as can being given intravenous fluids in the wrong amounts.

People with type 1 diabetes who have DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis) may have an electrolyte imbalance due to severe dehydration, metabolic acidosis (too much acid in the body), hyperglycemia, and a loss of fluid and electrolytes in the urine.

Some signs of an electrolyte imbalance include:

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  • Muscle cramps or weakness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Change in blood pressure
  • Seizures

Your health care provider can order an electrolyte panel to check for any imbalances as part of a basic metabolic panel or a comprehensive metabolic panel. These panels include measuring your kidney function and acid-base balance. Electrolytes can also be measured separately — for example, ionized calcium, serum potassium, and serum chloride.

How can you keep your electrolytes in balance?

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to keep your electrolytes in the right balance. Here’s how:

  • Eat a variety of foods every day, including leafy green vegetables, avocado, sweet potato, bananas, yogurt, cheese, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils.
  • Go easy with the salt — most people get enough from the foods that they eat.
  • Drink water and other non-caloric fluids, but don’t go overboard.
  • Rethink sports drinks — many of them are also high in sugar. Plus, you may not need them unless you are exercising strenuously. If you do choose to use a sports drink, go for the sugar-free kind. Coconut water can be a better choice, but it still contains carb (about 9 grams per 9 ounces).
  • To avoid dehydration, try not to exercise in extreme heat.
  • Talk with your provider about the medications you’re taking, including any over-the-counter drugs.

Want to learn more about electrolytes? Read “Best Beverages for Staying Hydrated,” “The Power of Potassium,” and “Magnesium: The Forgotten Healer.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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