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What are Electrolytes and What Role Do They Play?


by Elin Östman

Electrolytes are the salts in your body that carry an electric charge. They are essential for maintaining healthy bodily functions, including nerve and muscle function, blood pressure, and the pH level of your blood. Electrolytes also help regulate the amount of water in your body.

Electrolytes help regulate hydration levels, blood pressure, and promote healthy nerve cells when exercising. Electrolyte imbalance can cause you to feel muscle weakness or muscle spasms, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.

Electrolytes Explained

Electrolytes are essential minerals that get dissolved in your body that you lose through sweat, urination, and other bodily functions. They are necessary for muscle function, water balance in the cells and blood, heart health, and digestive health.

The main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium. When these electrolytes are lost, it can cause an imbalance in the body, leading to health problems such as muscle cramps, fatigue, and dizziness.

For instance, common electrolytes you can find in the body include sodium, which helps regulate blood pressure and fluid balance; potassium controls the way muscle contraction and nerve impulse transmission; calcium assists with muscle contractions; and magnesium helps to maintain a regular heartbeat. Phosphorus aids energy production within our cells while chloride maintains fluid balance around joints and other tissues in your body.

Electrolyte Function in the Body
Sodium (Na+) Role in Blood Pressure and Fluid Balance
Potassium (K+) Muscle Contractions and Nerve Impulses
Calcium (Ca2+) Muscle Contractions
Magnesium (Mg2+) Muscle, Nerve Function, Blood Pressure, Heartbeat and Rhythm
Phosphorus (Ph+) Energy Production
Chloride (Cl-) Role in Fluid Balance
Common Electrolytes

What happens when there is an electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolyte imbalance happens when the levels of certain electrolytes in the body go down, wherein your blood sodium levels also decline. Imbalances can occur when you sweat a lot, frequently urinate from alcohol or certain medications, and lose fluid through vomiting or diarrhea.

Typically, an imbalance occurs due to any number of reasons:

  • You have overeaten processed food and not enough whole foods.
  • Dehydration or lack of water intake.
  • You drink too much soda or coffee, which contains caffeine that acts as a diuretic (meaning it makes you urinate).
  • You are taking certain medications such as antibiotics and diuretics.
  • You are losing fluids from excessive sweating due to exercise, fever, high temperatures, etc.
  • You drink alcohol excessively. Alcohol inhibits the body’s absorption of water, leading to dehydration. It also acts as a diuretic in the short term by increasing urine production.
  • Lack of sleep leads to stress on the body, which can cause loss of electrolytes.
  • High blood pressure or heart disease.

Nausea, fatigue, and lethargy are some of the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance. There may also be vomiting, confusion, irritability, headaches, a fast heart rate, muscle cramping, and weakness, as well as an irregular heartbeat, abdominal cramping, numbness, and tingling. Others can also lead to convulsions or seizures, diarrhea, or constipation.

However, in some cases, severe electrolyte imbalance can lead to kidney disease, blood problems, abnormalities in kidney function, and fluid retention, as well as irregular heart rhythms and even cardiac arrest.

How to replace lost electrolytes?

To treat an electrolyte imbalance, you need to replenish your lost minerals. If you are experiencing some of the symptoms above, talk to a doctor to have them tested and advise how best to replace them.

The following foods contain reasonable amounts of essential electrolytes:

  • Bananas – 400mg of potassium
  • Avocados – 400mg
  • Spinach – 170mg
  • Nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin, squash, sesame) – 80-100mg per serving
  • Beans and legumes – 80-100mg
  • Fish – magnesium, potassium, selenium
  • Dairy products – calcium

For most people, it is best to eat a variety of foods to get the right balance of electrolytes. However, if you are struggling with intense cramps, fatigue, and other symptoms related to the imbalance of electrolyte levels, you might want to consider a supplement. Talk to your doctor about what would be the best action for you.

Here are some more tips on how you can replenish your electrolyte levels:

  • Get plenty of sunlight as well as fresh air because your skin will absorb the necessary nutrients from both sun rays as well as oxygen through your lungs.
  • Exercise regularly but avoid intense exercise for it may cause dehydration, leading to a whole host of problems, including electrolyte imbalance due to sweating excessively, if at all. It would be best to drink plenty of water before exercising or engaging in any other strenuous activity.
  • Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables such as bananas, oranges, avocados, leafy greens, and yogurt.
  • Take a supplement if you find it challenging to eat enough fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol or caffeine as both can lead to dehydration.

Electrolytes are lost through sweat, so it is vital to replace them through proper hydration. And you can do this by eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking a supplement if necessary. Electrolyte imbalance can cause problems such as nausea, fatigue, and weakness. Seek medical help if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. By maintaining electrolyte balance, you can ensure that your body functions properly.

Treatment

Correcting an electrolyte imbalance consists of restoring levels of body fluids that have an abnormal increase or decrease in electrolyte concentrations.

For example, excess sodium, potassium, and chloride can cause hypertension or cardiac arrhythmias. Conversely, a deficiency of sodium ions, potassium, sodium chloride, and calcium ions may lead to muscle weakness, syncope, heart rhythm disturbances, or sudden death.

The mainstay of treatment for electrolyte imbalance is identifying and treating the underlying cause. Appropriately replenishing lost electrolytes consists of consuming foods containing lost minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Additionally, the physician may prescribe certain medications such as diuretics to get rid of excess fluid in organs or tissues. On the contrary, aggressive hydration with normal saline and potassium chloride can be life-saving in an overdose. Otherwise, if you are experiencing some of the symptoms, do not just self-medicate. Seek help from doctors that can provide medical advice.

Can sports drinks help regain electrolyte balance?

This question has gained much attention lately, with many people becoming more engaged in exercising and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Electrolytes are essential for muscle function, blood pressure regulation, and other vital physiological processes, which is why it needs to be replenished, especially if there have been excessive losses in sweat.

Sports drinks are undoubtedly an effective way to replenish the lost electrolytes, but they should not be consumed in excess or substituted for meals. When you sweat, not only are electrolytes lost but water as well. This is why it is crucial to drink fluids during and after exercise, not just sports drinks.

While experts agree on that note, they also want to stress something else:

It is important to mention that a sports drink is not a magical drink that will make you lose weight or build muscles. It is only meant to supplement the electrolytes lost when you sweat. So, if you’re looking for a drink to help with weight loss or muscle gain, then you’re looking in the wrong place.

When it comes to sports drinks, there are two types: those packed with sugar and those that are not. The ones filled with sugar will do more harm than good, as they will cancel out all of the hard work you’ve done at the gym. Therefore, it is important to choose a sports drink that does not have a lot of added sugars. Make sure to fact-check your drink and seek medical information from suitable sources.

So, the next time you’re feeling dehydrated and in need of electrolytes, reach for both a sports drink and a bottle of water that will help you get back on track!

Author Bio:


Dr Elin Östman is the Chief Scientific Officer of Good Idea, promoting blood sugar balance in every meal. She had spent 15 years of research identifying and testing food concepts with positive health benefits.

The following post was a guest article from Dr. Elin Östman. The material is intended to be informational and provide options for replacing fluid loss. If you are interested in learning more about the products of Good Idea, check out their website. Dr. Christopher Cirino

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