You may have heard about getting electrolytes from sports drinks. Well, electrolytes are actually minerals—sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, bicarbonate—that dissolve in the body’s fluids, creating electrically charged ions.
“Some are positive, some are negative,” says Robin Foroutan, RD, a nutritionist and New York City-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They are essential because they help the body with nerve and muscle function as well as body fluid balance, blood pressure, and blood pH.”
Dehydration can lead to electrolyte imbalance. Your symptoms can vary depending on which electrolyte is out of balance and whether that level is too high or too low. One of the most abundant electrolytes in our bodies is sodium—and its role is essential.
“Sodium is responsible for maintaining the body’s fluid balance,” explains Naveet Bal, MD, assistant professor of medicine, division of nephrology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Excessive exercise, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and overexposure to heat are conditions that can cause our bodies to lose water and raise our sodium levels, he says.
Symptoms of hypernatremia (too much sodium in the blood) include thirst, agitation, altered state of mind, confusion and in more serious cases, seizures and coma, explains Dr. Bal. “Anytime we are severely dehydrated, it can be considered an electrolyte imbalance,” Foroutan says.
“Many people will be fine if they drink a little water but if you have been exercising for a while, a sports drink may be appropriate.”
We all know we should drink plenty of water, but drinking too much can also cause problems. Overhydration, also known as hyponatremia, happens when the level of sodium in the blood becomes abnormally low. “Hyponatremia is not common, but it can happen if you drink too much water,” explains Foroutan.
Other conditions that can lead to hyponatremia include diuretics, antidepressants, liver failure, renal failure, heart failure, pneumonia, diabetes, hypothyroidism, or severe diarrhea or vomiting when you replace your losses with plain water.
Sodium controls the amount of water that is in and around our cells, explains Foroutan, but when we become over-hydrated, the sodium becomes diluted and our cells begin to swell. Symptoms of hyponatremia range from mild to life-threatening and can include nausea and vomiting, headache, confusion, fatigue, restlessness, muscle weakness, seizures, and coma.
When it comes to sodium, Foroutan says it’s important to get this mineral from whole foods such as olives, naturally fermented pickles, and sauerkraut rather than processed foods. “Sodium gets a bad rap. While it’s true that most Americans are getting too much sodium from processed foods, you should not cut it from your diet completely.”
One of the most common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance is fatigue. Falling short on magnesium can be the culprit. “Magnesium is involved in more than 300 processes in the body,” says Foroutan. “It is also a big fatigue fighter.”
The daily recommendation of magnesium is 420 mg per day for men and 320 mg per day for women, according to the National Institutes of Health. Too little magnesium (hypomagnesemia) can be linked to poor eating habits, drinking too much alcohol, prolonged use of diuretics, diarrhea and gastrointestinal disorders, and the use of acid-reducing pills.
“You can increase your magnesium intake by eating foods such as dark leafy grains, nuts and seeds, whole grains, seafood, and poultry,” says Foroutan. “All the healthy foods you should be eating anyway have magnesium.”
Slow or irregular heartbeat
Potassium facilitates the electrical impulses our body needs for muscular contractions and for the normal functioning of the brain and nerves, explains Dr. Bal. The electrolyte also works closely with sodium to maintain normal muscle contractions and heart function, making it an important mineral for controlling your heart rate.
Hypokalemia (low potassium) happens when our body loses fluid (diarrhea and vomiting) and from some medications like diuretics and laxatives, says Dr. Bal. Mild cases of hypokalemia can be asymptomatic, but moderate and severe hypokalemia can cause muscle weakness, muscular spasms, tingling, numbness, palpitations, slow heart rate (bradycardia), and in severe cases cardiac arrest.
Too much potassium (hyperkalemia) is linked to kidney disease, but it can also be caused by some medications, says Dr. Bal. Having too much potassium in your system can cause muscular weakness, paralysis and possible life-threatening cardiac dysrhythmias.
While life-threatening hyperkalemia is treated with dialysis and potassium-lowering medications, restricting dietary potassium can treat mild cases, says Dr. Bal.