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All About Electrolytes

07 December 2021

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Due to the rise in popularity of sports drinks and flavored waters, many people associate replenishing electrolytes after physical fitness and activity. But electrolytes are more than that. Yes, they’re important for optimal hydration, but they also play a key role in body function. Therefore, having balanced electrolytes is key to your health.

In some people, these electrolyte levels become low – sometimes critically low. We'll cover what electrolytes are, which symptoms to be aware of and healthy food options to choose that can replenish lost electrolytes.


What are electrolytes?

Much like the earth we live on, the human body is composed mostly of water. This high concentration of fluids needs to be regulated in some way, which is where electrolytes come into play. When dissolved in water, electrolytes produce either a positive or negative charge to perform the following functions:

  • Help balance fluid levels to keep you hydrated
  • Produce energy
  • Balance pH levels
  • Control nervous system function
  • Contract muscles
  • Build new tissue

The following are examples of electrolytes:

  • Bicarbonate: A byproduct of excess carbon dioxide, bicarbonate helps regulate blood pH levels.
  • Calcium: This mineral is important for cell health and function, muscle control and to help transmit signals to your nerves
  • Chloride: This mineral helps regulate blood volume, blood pressure and the pH levels of your body fluids.
  • Magnesium: This mineral helps regulate blood pressure and heart rhythm. It also supports strong bone and joint health.
  • Phosphate: This mineral aids muscle contraction and plays a role in bone growth and repair.
  • Potassium: This mineral helps maintain cell health by balancing and retaining fluids. 
  • Sodium: This mineral balances fluids in nerves and muscles and also helps absorb nutrients.


What has electrolytes?

Electrolytes come from the food and drinks you consume that are high in calcium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate and potassium.

Fruits and vegetables

Spinach, which has earned a label as a superfood, is one of the most power-packed foods full of electrolytes. A cup of cooked spinach has 39 percent of the recommended daily value of magnesium, 24 percent of the recommended daily value of both potassium and calcium and 10 percent of the recommended daily value of phosphorus.

While bananas are often viewed as one of the best sources of potassium (12 percent of the recommended daily value), a medium avocado, another popular superfood, has 27 percent of the recommended daily value of potassium and 14 percent of the recommended daily value of magnesium.

Potatoes (25 percent of the recommended daily value of potassium and 12 percent of the recommended daily value of magnesium) and sweet potatoes (27 percent of the recommended daily value of potassium, 14 percent of the recommended daily value of magnesium and 11 percent of the recommended daily value of phosphorous) are two of the most common starchy vegetable options that are high in electrolytes. 


Chickpeas, pinto beans, white beans and black beans are all high in phosphorus, magnesium and potassium. Eating just one cup of chickpeas provides you with 28 percent of the recommended daily value of phosphorus and 20 percent of the recommended daily value of magnesium. 


Milk is full of calcium (29 percent of the recommended daily value in an 8-ounce glass) and also has potassium and magnesium. 

You can also receive a good portion of your daily amount of electrolytes from other sources of dairy. For example, one cup of low-fat yogurt also contains many electrolytes, including calcium (30 percent of the recommended daily value), phosphorus (23 percent), potassium (11 percent) and magnesium (7 percent).

Coconut water

Instead of a high-calorie, sugar-loaded sports drink to boost your electrolytes, coconut water is a healthier alternative. An 8-ounce serving of coconut water accounts for 17 percent of your daily intake of potassium, 15 percent of your daily intake of magnesium and 10 percent of your daily intake of magnesium.


What causes low electrolytes?

Each day, your kidneys are hard at work to filter out excess electrolytes that exit your body through urine. You also lose electrolytes when you sweat – sweat contains salt (sodium and chloride) and also has lower levels of potassium, magnesium and calcium.

But whatever electrolytes lost are usually replenished from the foods and drinks you consume. A poor diet can easily create an electrolyte imbalance. In some cases, illness (vomiting and diarrhea) can cause an excessive electrolyte loss. 

A persistent decrease in electrolyte levels is sometimes a symptom of a medical condition or a side effect from medications. Respiratory problems, such as emphysema, or metabolic alkalosis, a condition that causes a rise in blood pH level above 7.45, can also cause low electrolytes. Since urine and stool contain water, any type of medication that promotes excess urination or bowl movements – diuretics or laxatives – can cause low electrolyte levels.


What happens when your body is low on electrolytes?

Your body needs electrolytes to carry out important functions, so any chronic increase or decrease in electrolyte levels can cause health problems. For reference, anything with the prefix “hypo” means there isn’t enough of that particular electrolyte in your body. 

In general, common symptoms of low electrolytes include fatigue, body aches and muscle cramps, headaches and nausea. Each electrolyte also produces individual symptoms. Here is an overview of specific symptoms to be aware of.

Symptoms of low electrolytes

Not enough sodium: Also known as hyponatremia, this occurs when excess water moves into cells. Symptoms include cognitive changes, including confusion and apathy, and hyponatremia can also cause seizures. 

Not enough magnesium: Also known as hypomagnesemia, symptoms tend to mirror those of low potassium or low calcium. These include muscle weakness, muscle spasms and abnormal heart rate. Low magnesium levels can cause severe muscle weakness that leads to trouble breathing or cardiac arrest.

Not enough potassium: Also known as hypokalemia, this may not initially cause symptoms. However, the lower your potassium levels dip, the more severe the symptoms become. These symptoms include muscle weakness, spasms, cramps, kidney damage and abnormal heart rhythm.

Not enough calcium: Also known as hypocalcemia, symptoms may not occur in acute situations. However, chronically low calcium levels can cause a myriad of changes, most notably to your brain and muscles. You may notice a change in your reflexes or an increase in muscle spasms and cramps. It can also cause confusion and behavioral changes. Other affected areas include changes to your skin and hair.

Not enough chloride: Also known as hypochloremia, this occurs due to excessive vomiting or diuretics. Symptoms include muscle spasms, losing muscle control and confusion. Hypochloremia usually coincides with hyponatremia since sodium and chloride together make salt – when one is low, the other is low.

Not enough phosphate: Also known as hypophosphatemia, this can occur due to poor diet, diabetic ketoacidosis, excessive alcohol use or taking diuretics. Muscle weakness is the most common initial symptom. Critically low levels of phosphate can lead to kidney damage due to tissue breakdown, seizures, a decrease in respiratory health and heart failure.

Not enough bicarbonate: Also known as acidosis, this occurs when there is too much acid in your blood. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, an increase in respiratory rate and confusion.

While many symptoms of low electrolytes may masquerade as other common health problems, it’s important to act quickly if you suspect any changes in calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, potassium or sodium – a failure to address low electrolytes can have severe consequences. 

Talk to your primary care physician about receiving blood work to test your electrolytes. A basic or comprehensive metabolic panel checks the balance of fluids and electrolytes, your glucose levels and your blood urea nitrogen levels (a test that measures kidney function.

For more information about electrolytes, read our blog on 20-water packed foods to enjoy.


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