You’ve heard about electrolytes. They are usually the main selling point in advertising for (usually over-sugared) sports drinks that aim to “replenish” you after a vigorous workout. (there are better ways to get that fix, as I will explain). Despite the hard sell, they are right about the importance of electrolytes, as they are essential for our cells and organs to function properly. The ‘electro” part is the key, since electrolytes actually do have an electric charge to them. They posses positive and negative charged ions when they’re dissolved in water.
Common electrolytes in your body include sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. They are in charge of many important functions, including regulating your heartbeat and contracting your muscles during movement. Imagine if an electrolyte imbalance got in the way of those key tasks?
Electrolytes are taken in through eating foods and drinking fluids. You lose them when you exercise, sweat and urinate. This is why diet, lack of exercise (or too much exercise), and illness can cause an electrolyte imbalance.
Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include:
- Blood pressure changes
- Bone disorders
- Changes in body weight
- Confusion and trouble concentrating
- Digestive issues like cramps, constipation or diarrhea
- Dizziness, especially when standing up suddenly
- Fatigue (including chronic fatigue syndrome)
- Feeling thirsty
- Frequent headaches
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
- Joint pain
- Muscle aches, spasms, twitches and weakness
- Numbness and pain in joints
Your doctor can look for any noticeable changes in optimal electrolyte levels, including very high or low potassium, magnesium or sodium levels with blood and urine tests.
So what can you do if you have an imbalance? Say it with me: You start with your diet. A menu full of processed foods containing lots of sodium, but low in other electrolytes like magnesium or potassium, is a major factor. That’s an easy fix by eliminating junk foods, takeout and restaurant foods, and replacing them with fresh foods. Switch to vegetables and fruits that provide potassium and magnesium. These include leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cabbage, sweet potatoes, bananas, and avocados. A diet that’s rich in magnesium or potassium likely can be enough to solve an electrolyte imbalance. You can also check off the calcium requirements without using dairy by eating leafy greens, beans and legumes.
You also need to stay hydrated. Here are some foods that are water-dense:
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
- Coconut water
Watch your sodium intake. Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a big part in the body’s ability to retain or release water, so if your diet is too high in sodium, it can cause your kidneys to excrete too much water. Too much salt can also lead to bloating, lethargy, dehydration, weakness, irritability and muscle twitching. Not all salts are created equal either. If you are in need of a quick balancing act, try a pinch of Himalayan sea salt and a teaspoon or so of organic raw apple cider vinegar in purified water to replenish electrolytes rapidly. This is especially effective after a workout.
Antibiotics, diuretics, blood pressure pills and other medications can have an effect on electrolyte levels. Laxatives or diuretics can change potassium and sodium levels within the blood and urine and can sometimes cause anxiety, fast heartbeats, digestive issues and trouble sleeping. It’s also possible to develop electrolyte imbalances due to hormone medications, aldosterone and thyroid hormones. Taking magnesium supplements can help replenish any deficiency that can result in symptoms like muscle cramps. Your doctor can help you regulate your medications and supplements to avoid creating an electrolyte imbalance.