5 Questions You Need to Ask About Electrolytes

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on September 2, 2014

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard of electrolytes. They’re commonly found in sports drinks or used as medical supplements, but “plain” water and even wine spritzers also tout added electrolytes as a selling point. Read on to find out everything you need to know about electrolytes, and whether or not these electrolyte-enhanced products are worth it.

What are electrolytes and how do they work?

While all the hydration marketing may make electrolytes sound sexy and mysterious, they’re actually just minerals in your body that have an electrical charge (common electrolytes include potassium, sodium, and calcium). This electrical charge allows electrolytes to regulate a host of processes: managing blood pressure and pH, rebuilding damaged tissue, contracting muscles, monitoring hydration, and so on. For example, muscles contract because of electrical impulses, but cells can’t send these impulses unless they each maintain the right voltage across their membranes. Electrolytes are the mechanism the body uses to maintain the proper cell voltages, which in turn lets your muscles contract how and when you want them to. Electrolytes are generally found circulating through the blood, the liquid in and around cells, and other bodily fluids.

How does an electrolyte imbalance affect my body?

Your kidneys work together with several hormones to keep each of your electrolytes balanced at the correct levels. Since they control so many bodily processes, having an electrolyte imbalance can wreak havoc on your health, and even develop into a life-threatening condition. Electrolyte imbalances can be temporary and mild or prolonged and severe, and usually involve one of the “big three” electrolytes: potassium, sodium, and calcium. Symptoms of a temporary disturbance include dizziness, exhaustion, and muscle problems such as cramps, twitching, numbness, and fatigue. Some people may also suffer from stomach cramps and nausea, dark urine, dry mouth, and swelling from fluid retention. Signs of a more several imbalance are irregular heartbeat, changes in blood pressure, mental confusion, and seizures or convulsions. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately.

When should I be looking out for electrolyte imbalances?

Since electrolytes are contained in bodily fluids, any time you get rid of said fluids, you’re probably getting rid of some electrolytes too. Sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and even urination are all different ways you can lose electrolytes. That’s why you feel so depleted after a hard workout or a bout of stomach flu — you’ve suddenly lost a lot of electrolytes through fluids. Other times to watch out for electrolyte imbalances include prolonged dehydration, high fevers, kidney problems, physical trauma such as burns, and switching medications or starting a new one. Health conditions such as kidney or heart disease or diabetes can also increase your chances of developing an electrolyte imbalance, as well as eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa.

How should I be replenishing my electrolytes?

Electrolyte-enhanced marketing has concentrated on the hydration market, but you get your electrolytes through the food you eat as well as through the beverages you drink. However, unless you’re exercising intensely for more than an hour and sweating a lot, you can skip the pricey electrolyte elixirs and focus on replenishing them through food instead (many popular sports drinks contain too much sugar anyways). Bananas are a good option for replenishing potassium; milk or yogurt restores calcium; and salty foods or table salt replace lost sodium (just don’t overdo it, as the typical American diet already contains a lot of sodium). In regards to restoring a couple other important electrolytes through food, magnesium can be found in nuts and dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, while chloride is found in produce such as tomatoes, lettuce, and celery. And as for that electrolyte-laced wine spritzer, while alcohol does deplete your electrolytes, after a night of drinking you don’t just need a quick electrolyte boost — you need to drink a lot of water, since alcohol interferes with fluid absorption and seriously dehydrates you. So if you were looking for a magic potion that would let you drink a lot of alcohol without any side effects, this probably isn’t it.

Who should be most concerned about electrolyte imbalances?

Athletes or extreme fitness enthusiasts who lose a lot of sweat in a short amount of time may experience temporary electrolyte imbalances, often in the form of muscle cramps. This is because you lose a lot of sodium (an important electrolyte) through sweat, which is incidentally why sweat tastes so salty. Elderly people are also at risk for electrolyte imbalances since the kidneys’ function tends to deteriorate with age. Illness, particular medications, and declining cognitive abilities can all contribute to the creation of electrolyte imbalances in the elderly. Cancer patients, particularly those undergoing chemotherapy, can also experience electrolyte imbalances due to a variety of factors, including loss of bodily fluids and malabsorption.