Electrolytes are naturally occurring chemical compounds that play a crucial role in human physiology because of their ability to carry an electrical charge.
Biologically speaking, electrolytes contribute to a wide variety of vital processes because they separate into positively and negatively charged ions when dissolved in a polar solvent like water. These ions, in turn, help our muscles contract, the synapses in our brain fire, and our hearts beat because these functions are largely dependent on the proper exchange of positively and negatively charged ions in and out of cells.
The body’s principal electrolytes include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, phosphate, and chloride, each of which has a vitally important—and sometimes parallel—physiological function.
- Calcium – helps regulate blood pressure, contract muscles, convey nerve signals, and develop and maintain bones. Calcium imbalances can cause bone pain, irregular heartbeat, kidney stones, fractures, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
- Magnesium – helps maintain proper heart rhythm, contract muscles, balance the ratio of fluids and proteins in the body, and even regulate mental health. Magnesium imbalances can lead to insomnia, other mental disturbances, and anxiety.
- Potassium – helps stabilize blood pressure and control heart beat. Too low or too high potassium can cause muscle spasms, cramps, constipation, and sleep disturbances.
- Sodium – helps maintain the body’s balance of fluids, contract muscles, and convey nerve signals. An imbalance in your body’s sodium levels can cause cramps, nausea, and diarrhea.
- Chloride – helps maintain a proper balance of the body’s fluids. Chloride imbalances can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and trouble breathing.
While all of the above-listed electrolytes are important, I will primarily focus on sodium, magnesium, and potassium in this article, since they’re the three electrolytes in which most people are generally deficient.
Because of their wide-ranging physiological importance, electrolyte deficiencies or imbalances can have very serious consequences, ranging from fatigue and muscle cramps to death. In fact, electrolytes are so important that an injection of the right amount of potassium can stop the heart dead in its tracks!
Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance
Generally speaking, minor electrolyte imbalances are not very symptomatic. Most people can display no symptoms and still have slightly elevated or diminished levels of most electrolytes on a blood test.
However, if an electrolyte imbalance escalates to the point that it becomes significant, it can be deadly. Because electrolytes play such critical roles in the nervous and cardiovascular systems, many of the symptoms of imbalance or depletion affect these same parts of the body.
In most cases, you will know there is something wrong because you will feel absolutely awful. The most common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include muscle cramps, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, flu-like symptoms, digestive issues, confusion or brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, and dizziness.
Fortunately, these symptoms will generally abate if an imbalance is caught and managed early; however, if it goes untreated, an electrolyte imbalance can cause serious long-term problems, including bone mineral loss (osteoporosis) and irreversible heart and brain damage.
Short-Term Effects of Electrolyte Imbalance
- Muscle cramps
- Flu-like symptoms
- Digestive issues
- Brain fog
Long-Term Effects of Electrolyte Imbalance
- Bone mineral loss (osteoporosis)
- Heart damage
- Cognitive damage
Causes of Electrolyte Imbalance
We absorb electrolytes through the foods we eat and the fluids we drink, and lose them through exercise, sweating, and expelling bodily waste.
An electrolyte imbalance occurs when we have too much or too little of a given electrolyte, a fact that highlights the importance of the ratio of these nutrients in the body. Electrolyte levels can get out of whack when we do not consume enough of a given electrolyte to start, or when we do not take in enough to replace that which is being lost.
There a variety of factors that can precipitate an electrolyte imbalance.
For instance, an imbalance can occur if you do not consume a well-rounded diet capable of providing you with enough mineral electrolytes, or if you have gut issues that lead to your body absorbing too few nutrients from the food you eat. You can also experience an electrolyte imbalance if you are very sick and purging fluids—and, by extension, electrolytes—as a result of severe vomiting, diarrhea, or high fever.
In addition to acute illness, chronic conditions like endocrine or hormonal disorders, cancer, kidney disease, or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) can lead to electrolyte imbalances as these conditions or their treatments all, in one way or the other, cause the body to purge electrolytes.
Interestingly enough, one of the more common causes of electrolyte imbalance I encounter is from an otherwise seemingly healthy undertaking: the ketogenic diet.
This low carb, high healthy fat diet wreaks havoc on your body’s electrolyte levels in two ways.
First, the diet causes a precipitous drop in daily sodium intake essentially overnight by removing processed and unhealthy foods that are chock full of salt from your daily menu. If you don’t intentionally replace these now-missing electrolytes, you are just about guaranteed to experience the dreaded “keto flu.”
Second, the ketogenic diet is diuretic in nature. Cutting carbohydrates causes insulin levels to drop, and the sudden drop in insulin triggers the kidneys to release water and electrolytes through increased urine production.
How Much is Enough?
While all electrolytes play an important role in the body’s functioning, sodium, potassium, and magnesium are my primary focus today.
While many people include calcium when discussing proper electrolyte consumption, the scientific literature has largely agreed on the point that most people get enough calcium from dietary sources, and over supplementing can have very serious side effects. Therefore, I generally leave calcium off my hit list of the most important electrolytes.
It is important to remember that our consumption of these nutrients needs to be properly balanced against one another to ensure we do not drive ourselves into an electrolyte imbalance.
In general, you should be consuming 5,000mg of sodium; 1,000mg of potassium, ideally in the form of potassium chloride or potassium citrate; and 300mg of magnesium, preferably in the form of magnesium malate every day, in addition to what you get from dietary sources.
Be aware that, these are generic ranges… your exact level of optimal electrolyte intake is a multifactorial question.
Things like your age, body mass, daily activity level, the presence of any electrolyte-purging comorbidities, and even where you live can all impact the level of electrolytes that you should consume each day.
However, if you can relate to any of the symptoms described above, there is a good chance your electrolytes are out of balance.
So what can you do? I’m glad you asked!
- Don’t Reach for a Standard Sports Drink
I don’t think anyone should ever consume the sugary sports drinks that line the shelves of your average grocery store or corner bodega.
All of the electrolyte-replacement products on the market today, ironically, do not contain sufficient levels of key electrolytes and are just packed with sugar. It’s best to ignore the catchy marketing campaigns, famous athletes’ endorsement deals, and the sponsorships at sporting events big and small—these drinks are not your friend and should be avoided at all costs!
- Tweak Your Diet
Minor electrolyte imbalances can generally be corrected by focusing on optimizing the foods you consume on a daily basis. Ensuring your diet is filled with unpackaged, whole foods that deliver a healthy dose of essential nutrients, including electrolytes, can go a long way towards reversing an electrolyte imbalance.
Above-ground leafy vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, bananas, and avocados are rich in potassium and magnesium, while beans and probiotic dairy are a great source of calcium.
- Supplement Electrolytes
If you can’t indulge in a mainstream sports drink, where should you turn to supplement electrolytes? I asked myself this very same question and answering it led me to be shoulder deep in my pantry mixing up homebrew electrolyte concoctions.
After a ton of trial and error, I developed a couple of great do-it-yourself drink recipes for anyone who wants to follow my lead and mix up their own. If you’d like to dive into some of my favorite recipes, you can download them here.
On the other hand, if you’d prefer to learn from the mistakes I made over years tinkering with these recipes—and trust me, there were a few!—you can give LMNT Recharge a try. I’ve worked really hard to develop this electrolyte drink mix and it’s precisely formulated to deliver all of the electrolytes you need and none of the extra junk that you don’t. And if I can so say myself, it’s quite tasty!
One thing that is important to keep in mind: whether they are the result of dietary issues or another underlying condition, electrolyte imbalances are very serious business.
If you think you may be suffering from a severe electrolyte imbalance, you should consult your healthcare provider immediately. They can help you determine the extent of any imbalance with a metabolic panel and help craft a plan to get you back on the right track.
Once you know which electrolytes are out of whack and what is driving the imbalance, you can incorporate some of these suggestions to supplement the plan you develop with your physician.