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What Are Electrolytes? Function, Sources & Signs of Imbalance

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Electrolytes - Dr. Axe

Electrolytes are incredibly important to overall health. Not only are they found throughout the human body in the blood, sweat and urine, but they also play a vital role in everything from fluid balance to heart health and brain function.

Fortunately, electrolytes are present naturally in a variety of food sources, which makes it easy to meet your needs by following a nutritious, well-rounded diet. If needed, supplements are also readily available for a quick and convenient dose of these important minerals.

Ready to learn more? Keep reading for a complete list of electrolytes, some common signs of an electrolyte imbalance and the best food sources to try to fit into your diet.

What Are Electrolytes? What Do They Do?

According to Merriam-Webster, the official electrolytes definition is “a nonmetallic electric conductor in which current is carried by the movement of ions.”

To put it simply, however, electrolytes are a type of particle that carries either a positive or negative charge when dissolved in water. Strong electrolytes, such as hydrochloric acid, ionize completely in a solution, while weak electrolytes ionize only partially.

These particles are found throughout the human body and are present in the blood, sweat and urine. A few of the most common electrolytes examples that are important to health include:

So what do electrolytes do? These important minerals are involved in a number of metabolic processes, all of which are essential to overall health.

An electrolyte imbalance can come with serious consequences, including muscle weakness, confusion and fatigue.

Some of the potential electrolytes benefits and functions in the body include:

  • Regulating fluid balance
  • Promoting nerve and muscle function
  • Supporting heart health
  • Improving bone strength
  • Maintaining brain health

Symptoms and Causes of Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolyte levels in the blood are closely regulated by the body to help keep them in balance. However, in some cases, electrolytes can increase or decrease to levels above or below normal, which can cause an electrolytes imbalance.

Several factors and conditions can disrupt electrolyte levels, which can have harmful effects on health. A few common causes of low electrolytes include:

  • Dehydration
  • Fluid loss caused by excessive sweating, diarrhea or vomiting
  • Eating disorders
  • Poor diet
  • Kidney disease
  • Severe burns
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Certain medications, such as water pills or laxatives

Symptoms of an electrolyte balance can vary based on the severity, the specific minerals that are affected, and whether your levels are too high or too low. While a mild imbalance may not cause any symptoms, severe cases can have serious side effects and may even be fatal in some cases.

Common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance may include:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headaches
  • Numbness
  • Stomach pain
  • Convulsions
  • Constipation
  • Frequent urination
  • Dry mouth
  • Mood changes
  • Increased thirst
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

If you experience these or any other symptoms of an imbalance, be sure to talk to a trusted health care professional to determine the best course of treatment for you.

Top Sources of Electrolytes (Plus RDA/Dosage)

Wondering how to replenish electrolytes to keep your levels in check? One of the simplest and most effective methods for how to get electrolytes is to follow a healthy diet and fill up on foods with electrolytes, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.

Not only are these foods rich in natural electrolytes, but they also provide a number of other important nutrients that your body needs, including vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

Here are a few of the best electrolytes food sources, plus the recommended daily allowance for each:

Calcium

  • RDA: 1,300 milligrams/day
  • Sources: yogurt, kefir, raw milk, cheese, canned sardines, leafy greens, almonds

Sodium

  • RDA: no more than 2,300 milligrams/day
  • Sources: cottage cheese, tablet salt, pickles, olives

Phosphorus

  • RDA: 1,250 milligrams/day
  • Sources: meat, fish, poultry, dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes

Magnesium

  • RDA: 420 milligrams/day
  • Sources: nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, avocados, whole grains, beans

Potassium

  • RDA: 4,700 milligrams/day
  • Sources: bananas, potatoes, spinach, lentils, beans, beets, dried fruit

Chloride

  • RDA: 2,300 milligrams/day
  • Sources: table salt, seaweed, tomatoes, celery, olives

Electrolyte Supplements

In addition to enjoying a variety of healthy foods, some people also choose to use supplements, such as electrolytes drinks or electrolyte powder, to help boost their intake of these important minerals.

For healthy adults, consuming supplements or drinks with electrolytes is not typically necessary, as most people can meet their needs by following a healthy diet rich in nutritious whole foods. In some cases, however, the use of products like electrolytes powder can be beneficial.

Athletes, for example, may opt to use sports drinks that contain electrolytes in water to help balance their levels after long bouts of physical activity. Consuming water with electrolytes can also be beneficial to replenish losses of important minerals caused by fluid loss due to diarrhea or vomiting.

However, overuse of these supplements can also contribute to high levels of these key minerals, which can be just as dangerous as deficiencies. Therefore, it’s best to talk to your doctor before starting supplementation, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.

Risks and Side Effects

Although most people are able to meet their needs for these key minerals through healthy food sources, some groups need to be especially mindful of their intake to prevent adverse effects on health.

If you’re taking medications like diuretics or laxatives or have any health conditions like kidney problems or congestive heart failure, your doctor should monitor your electrolyte levels carefully to avoid an imbalance.

Those following a ketogenic diet should also be mindful of their intake. This is because ketosis can cause increased urination, which causes certain nutrients to be flushed out of the body more quickly.

Ensuring that you get enough keto electrolytes can help minimize symptoms of keto flu, such as headaches, fatigue and changes in mood.

An electrolyte panel is a blood test that can help measure your levels and evaluate kidney function. If you think that you might have an imbalance, talk to your doctor to get tested and determine the best course of treatment for you.

Final Thoughts

  • What are electrolytes? Electrolytes are particles that carry a positive or negative charge when dissolved in water.
  • Magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, chloride, sodium and bicarbonate are a few types that are found in the body, all of which play a role in everything from nerve and muscle function to fluid balance, heart health and bone strength.
  • Although the body closely regulates electrolyte levels, certain factors can cause an imbalance, including dehydration, fluid loss, kidney disease and a poor diet.
  • An imbalance in these important minerals can cause symptoms such as fatigue, confusion, muscle weakness, dry mouth and loss of appetite.
  • The best way to replenish your electrolytes is to follow a healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • In some cases, supplementation may be beneficial for preventing side effects caused by diarrhea, vomiting or extended periods of physical activity.
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