We often hear people talking about replenishing their electrolytes after an intense workout. But what exactly are electrolytes, what can cause an imbalance of them, and how can we naturally replenish them?

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals – potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and chloride – that conduct nerve impulses and help maintain the balance of fluids in the body.

They are essential for sustaining human life. These minerals aid in regulating muscle contractions and heartbeat and help maintain the proper acidity (PH) of blood. Additionally, they play a role in blood pressure and blood volume and keep the levels of fluids inside and outside of cells in balance.

The levels of electrolytes in the body can change when the level of water in the body changes. This can occur when we sweat, vomit, have diarrhea, or simply don’t drink enough water. When these instances occur, we should replenish the water and electrolytes that our body has lost.

Considering how more than 50% of the human body is made up of water, it is very important to keep it in equilibrium throughout the various fluid compartments of the body.

The kidneys play a large role in keeping the proper levels of electrolytes in the body maintained and balanced. According to Merck Manuals, these important organs do their job “by filtering electrolytes and water from blood, returning some to the blood, and excreting any excess into the urine.”

What Can Cause a Lack of or Imbalance of Electrolytes?

An image of a woman doing an overhead dumbbell tricep extension

An electrolyte imbalance in the body can occur if an electrolyte is at higher or lower level than it should be. Symptoms can include, but are not limited to, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, muscle spasms and cramps, confusion, blood pressure changes, and irregular heartbeat.1, 2

As mentioned earlier, an issue with electrolytes in the body can occur through fluid loss. Examples of fluid loss can include sweating from intense or prolonged exercise and heat. Illnesses that involve vomiting, diarrhea, or a high fever can also lead to loss of fluids from the body.

In addition, an imbalance or lack of electrolytes could be due to poor diet, or the consumption of too much of one specific electrolyte e.g. too much sodium (salt) in food.

Electrolyte balance can also be affected in the presence of disorders or illnesses that hinder the ability of the heart, kidneys, or liver to function properly. Additionally, certain medications or malabsorption issues can lead to issues with the levels of electrolytes in the body.

However, at the end of the day, the total amount of electrolytes and levels of individual electrolytes you need to consume comes down to individual needs and circumstances.

How to Replenish Them

An image of a persons hands holding a fresh coconut with the top chopped off with a straw in it

High in nutrients and offering many health benefits, coconut water is a drink that naturally contains the six aforementioned electrolytes. However, it is something of an acquired taste, with fresh coconut water tasting better than canned. If you want to drink coconut water but aren’t loving the flavor, try mixing it with a little bit of fresh pineapple or mango juice.

Another way you can up your intake of electrolytes in a beverage is electrolyte-enhanced water. This is typically purified water with added electrolyte minerals. One of the benefits of this water is that it is typically flavorless, making it a good alternative for those who don’t want to drink coconut water. Bear in mind that some electrolyte waters are very low in minerals, so be sure to check the label before you buy.

Electrolyte supplements are also an option and are available in tablet and powder form. Buying electrolyte powder that you add to your own water can save money over buying electrolyte-enhanced water and coconut water. Try to find a product that contains no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners. Your local health food store is a great place to look for these products.

Finally, eating a varied diet and consuming foods high in potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and chloride is  a good way to replenish your electrolytes. Below are some examples of good food sources of each mineral.

  • Potassium: Leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, asparagus, fennel, squash, crimini mushrooms, celery, seaweed, coconut water.3
  • Sodium/Chloride: Himalayan salt, miso, olives, celery, pickled vegetables (i.e. sauerkraut, dill pickles, kimchi).
  • Calcium: Leafy greens, sesame seeds, tempeh, tahini, non-dairy milk, yogurt, and cheese (check nutrition labels).
  • Magnesium: Nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy greens, tempeh, whole grains (i.e. quinoa, buckwheat, millet), dark chocolate.4
  • Phosphorus: Tempeh, lentils, pumpkin seeds, crimini mushrooms, oats, green peas, broccoli, spinach, asparagus.5

Sources:

  1. http://cancer.unm.edu/cancer/cancer-info/cancer-treatment/side-effects-of-cancer-treatment/less-common-side-effects/blood-test-abnormalities/electrolyte-imbalance/
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/153188.php
  3. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=90
  4. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=75
  5. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=127
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