Vital for many core functions in the human body, electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge. When dissolved in bodily fluids, electrolytes separate into negatively or positively charged ions that provide the voltage necessary for nerve signalling, muscle movement, and fluid balance throughout the body.
They are found in blood, urine, tissues, and other bodily fluids. Every time we sweat, urinate, or defecate, we lose some of them. It’s important to replenish electrolytes as they are depleted.
Without electrolytes, our cells would dry out or burst from being too full, our hearts would stop beating, our muscles would stop working, and our brains would cease sending out messages to the rest of the body.
Read on to learn all about how electrolytes work, the signs of an electrolyte deficiency, and natural sources of electrolytes that will keep your body running like a finely tuned machine.
How Electrolytes Affect the Body
Although it’s a buzzword associated with sports drinks, electrolytes comprise of several familiar minerals that are already present in many foods. They are not one and the same, however, so it’s essential to consume a good balance of different electrolytes in your diet:
Potassium – Helps to regulate blood pressure, pH balance, heart rhythm, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, and water balance.
Calcium – Forming and maintaining healthy bones and teeth, cell division, muscle contractions, blood circulation, blood clotting, hormone release, and signalling from the brain to other parts of the body.
Magnesium – Converts food into energy, creates proteins from amino acids, neurotransmitter regulation, repairs DNA, maintains heart rhythm, and helps muscles relax and contract.
Sodium – Balances bodily fluids, nerve signalling, and muscle functions.
Chloride – Maintains pH balance, transmits nerve impulses, and moves fluid in and out of cells.
Phosphate – Necessary for tissue growth and repair, energy production within cells, muscle movements, the creation of DNA and RNA, vitamin uptake, and nerve conduction.
11 Symptoms of an Electrolyte Imbalance
When you’re not receiving enough of these elements in your diet, it impacts the entire body. The most common signs of depleted electrolytes includes:
- Rapid heart rate and irregular heart beat
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Muscle weakness or cramping
- Irritability and anxiety
- Numbness and tingling
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Restlessness and insomnia
- Feeling very thirsty
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule a visit with your doctor to rule out an electrolyte deficiency. Your electrolyte levels can easily be determined with a urine or blood test.
The Myth of Sports Drinks
Invented in the 1970s, sports drinks were initially developed for professional athletes for hydration and carbohydrate replacement (sugars).
Today, however, sports drinks are marketed to a much wider audience who are unlikely to be as physically active as an Olympian. With marketing targeted towards children, these flavorful yet sugar-laden drinks may be contributing to childhood obesity.
The claims that sports drinks are superior to water for hydration, that they stimulate thirst so you drink more, and the importance of prehydrating are dubious at best. And they only contain a limited number of electrolytes – just potassium and sodium.
10 Best Natural Sources of Electrolytes
If you engage in less than 60 minutes of physical activity per day, restoring the full range of electrolytes can be accomplished by ensuring your diet includes these foods and drinks:
Whether boiled or eaten raw, spinach is an incredibly nutritious leafy green. A good source of protein and insoluble fiber, spinach is especially high in vitamin A and C, and contains several phytochemicals like lutein, kaempferol, and quercetin which have antioxidant properties. Per 100 g, it provides 16% potassium, 3% sodium, 10% calcium, 20% magnesium, and 5% phosphorus.
Easy to eat on the go, bananas are enriched with vitamin C and B6, as well as trace elements like folate, pantothenic acid, niacin, and riboflavin. They also provide several types of catechins and dopamine antioxidants. In terms of electrolytes, bananas offer 10% potassium, 7% magnesium, 2% phosphorus, and 1% calcium per 100 g serving. Eat them on their own or brew up some healthful banana peel tea.
3. Whole Milk
Deeply hydrating and chock full of electrolytes, most wouldn’t consider milk to be their go-to thirst quencher. And yet each cup of 3.25% fat milk is 28% calcium, 22% phosphorus, 10% potassium, 6% magnesium, and 4% sodium.
4. Coconut Milk
A highly nutritious non-dairy dairy product, coconut milk is made from grated coconut flesh steeped in hot water so that the coconut cream can be skimmed from the top. A cup contains lots of good stuff, including 24% phosphorus, 22% magnesium, 18% potassium, 4% calcium, and 1% sodium.
5. Coconut Water
If you prefer your drinks to have a lighter consistency, coconut water provides a good range of vitamins and minerals. Electrolyte-wise, each cup is fortified with 17% potassium, 15% magnesium, 6% calcium, 5% phosphorus, and 11% sodium.
The veggies of the sea, seaweed spans several different varieties that boast varying amounts of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that are often found in higher levels than many other foods. Depending on the type, eating a 100 g serving of seaweed can provide up to 180% of your RDI for magnesium, 45% for potassium, and 60% for calcium.
The original energy drink, switchel is an old-timey beverage made from apple cider vinegar, pure maple syrup, fresh ginger root, and water or club soda. Not only is switchel an excellent tonic for rehydrating, it is naturally rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium thanks to its ACV and maple syrup content.
8. Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice
A single cup of fresh OJ will definitely allow you to meet your daily vitamin C needs (207% of the daily value), along with a healthy dose of folate, thiamin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins A and B6. Orange juice is also a good source of potassium (14%), magnesium (7%), calcium (3%), and phosphorus (4%).
9. Drinking Shrubs
Because so many fruits and vegetables naturally contain electrolyte minerals, try mixing up some drinking shrub in lieu of sugary sports drinks. Easy to make, shrubs are any combination of fruits and veggies steeped in vinegar for up to one month. It’s a fermented drink that provides probiotics, vitamins, and a range of minerals. To restore electrolytes specifically, incorporate apples, citrus fruits, tomatoes, and leafy greens to your blend.
10. Table Salt
Although consuming more than 2,300 mg of salt per day (the equivalent of one teaspoon) can contribute to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease, the body cannot function without some sodium in the diet. While the main culprit of excessive sodium intake is processed foods, seasoning home cooked meals with a little table salt will provide you with two important electrolytes – sodium and chloride. Other natural sources of chloride include olives, tomatoes, and celery.
Electrolyte Supplements for Active Lifestyles
For those who vigorously exercise for 20 minutes to an hour most days of the week, replacing electrolytes lost due to sweat should be part of your workout regimen.
A plant-based supplement, Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator is a zero calorie powder that can be stirred into water or juice. It covers most of the essential electrolytes – potassium, magnesium, phosphate, sodium, and chloride – and includes the antioxidants vitamin C and selenium.
Another option is Vitalyte Electrolyte, a hydrating sport drink mix that contains potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, chloride, and phosphorus, along with vitamin C – all of which are derived from natural sources.