When I hear the word "electrolytes" my first mental images are of neon sports drinks, sweating athletes, laying in bed battling a fever, or perhaps nursing a hangover.
Electrolytes are one of these nutrient groups that I became familiar with over time through advertisements and packaging rather than in school, and you may have had a similar experience. I had a vague understanding that they were important, that they make you feel better when you're sick, but until recently I never understood why.
Because *understanding why* is one of my favorite pastimes, I summarized the basics and want to share them here with you. First I'll go over what electrolytes are, why your body needs them, and how you may feel if they are out of balance. Further below are recommendations of the best food sources to support these processes. Here's yet another example of what a magnificently complex being you are, and how your body is constantly working to keep things running smoothly.
as simply as possible:
What are electrolytes?
- Electrolytes are a variety of substances that produce an electrically conducting solution when dissolved. The most important electrolyte ions for human body function are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and chloride.
Why does my body need them?
- Electrical charges are what make your muscles move, and allow you to have thoughts and physical feelings. Muscles and neurons are activated by the movement of electrolyte ions in and out of cell membranes.
- They balance the amount and dispersal of water inside and outside of cells, and throughout the different organs and areas of the body. This balance is important for many physiological functions.
- They move nutrients in, and waste out, of cells.
- They aid in injury recovery by clotting blood and building new tissues.
- They control the pH of your blood — the importance of this is a topic deserving of its own post, so that's next on my to-do list.
What happens when they are out of balance? And what can cause an imbalance?
Electrolytes are a substance that require a specific and delicate balance to function properly. It's possible to feel similar symptoms from either an excess or a deficiency of certain nutrients. The only way to know for sure is with lab tests.
When electrolyte levels are out of whack, you might feel:
- Lethargy; muscle weakness, cramps, and spasms, irregular heartbeat
- Coarse/dry hair, brittle nails, dry/scaly skin
- Headache, confusion, memory loss, depression, change in personality
- In rare and severe cases, extremely low sodium or phosphate can lead to respiratory failure, heart failure, seizures, coma, and death — I don't give this example to be frightening but rather show just how powerful of an impact micronutrient imbalances can have. This seriously only happens in rare and severe cases.
How does one lose electrolytes?
- By not consuming enough in total, and/or enough of a certain ion. Eating a balanced diet that includes some of the foods I'll soon mention, helps to prevent this. When given the proper materials, a healthy body is quite good at figuring out what to do with them.
- Losing too much water—by excessive urinating, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, or prolonged fever. Sounds like a flu, right? This is one reason why it's so important to stay hydrated when you're sick, and also why it's common knowledge to drink Pedialyte/Gatorade/Nuun etc., when you're feeling terribly sick. (Or terribly hungover.)
- Kidney disease—the kidneys regulate electrolytes by filtering an appropriate amount into the blood, and releasing any excess into the urine as waste. When the kidneys aren't functioning properly, this process is disrupted.
- Chronic respiratory conditions like emphysema—one symptom of these conditions is the irregular secretion of a hormone called vasopressin or ADH, which can affect the kidneys' ability to absorb water and the nutrients it carries.
- Certain medications such as steroids, laxatives, and diuretics can alter kidney function and electrolyte balance.
So, how can I bring electrolyte balance into my diet?
Unless you suffer from kidney disease, it is unlikely that you will consume an excess of calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, or potassium with a balanced diet. Sodium is abundant in the standard American diet, as well as many places around the world; it has been common knowledge for some time that excess sodium is damaging to our health. To counteract this imbalance, and optimize that electrical conductivity of yours, consider consuming the following foods more regularly:
- Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes
- Lima Beans, Soybeans, Tofu & Tempeh
- Collard Greens, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Beet Greens
Nuts, Seeds, & Grains:
- Sesame Seeds
- Pumpkin Seeds
I hope you found this information interesting, and applicable to your daily life! If you have any nutrition questions I can attempt to answer, send an email or leave a comment below.
Cuzzo, Brian. “Vasopressin (Antidiuretic Hormone, ADH).” StatPearls , U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Feb. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526069/.
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Wax, Emily, and David Zieve. “Chloride in Diet: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Feb. 2019, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002417.htm.