Electrolytes are crucial for life. Without them, we couldn’t think, move, breathe, or do much of anything else.
We have all been told at some point to grab a sports drink to help replenish your electrolytes when you are sweating heavily and burning lots of calories. But what if you aren't an athlete or aren't doing a heavy workout? The short answer is yes. You still need them and may not be getting enough if:
1. you eat mostly whole foods
2. you are on a low carb diet
3. you are not picking up the salt shaker regularly
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that carry electrical charges. Their primary role is to facilitate cell-to-cell communication. They are involved in the balance of water in the body (hydration), the pH balance in the body, the movement of nutrients into cells and elimination of waste from cells and the proper functioning of nerve, muscle, heart and brain cells.
The minerals that are classified as electrolytes include:
You are probably familiar with the negative effects of low sodium, although you may now know it. If you have ever experienced the following, it may have been caused by low sodium.
Headaches, fatigue, brain fog, and other keto flu symptoms
Frequent muscle cramps
Elevated blood pressure
Decreased bone mineral density
Our sodium retention system causes many of these problems. When you don’t get enough salt, you release aldosterone, epinephrine, renin, and other stimulating and blood-pressure-elevating hormones in an attempt to spare your body the loss of sodium.
Inadequate electrolyte intake also impairs bone health. Why? Because bone is your primary electrolyte reservoir. If dietary intakes are low, bone gets tapped.
The best way to increase sodium consumption is to add it to your food or you can consume it in the form of an electrolyte drink.
But isn't sodium bad for you? Today the USDA recommends capping sodium at 2.3 grams per day to reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) is even more discouraging on salt, advising you to stay under 1.5 grams per day. For reference, the average American consumes about 3.4 grams of sodium per day. However, recent scientific literature to support the reduction of sodium continues to be underwhelming. It is likely that most people will actually benefit from upwards of 5 grams a day or more if they are in a category of greater loss (see below).
About 97% of Americans don’t consume enough potassium. Why? Because the vast majority of Americans don’t consume enough potassium rich foods like spinach, avocados, salmon, beets and sweet potatoes.
Getting enough potassium (3.5 - 4.7 grams) is shown to minimize the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, bone loss and kidney stones.
Magnesium does just about everything in the body from building proteins and strong bones to regulating blood sugar and blood pressure to supporting energy production, muscle and nerve functions. Magnesium also acts an electrical conductor that contracts muscles and makes the heart beat steadily. It assists in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body.
Most dietary magnesium comes from dark green, leafy vegetables. Other foods that are good sources of magnesium are:
Fruits (such as bananas, dried apricots, and avocados)
Nuts (such as almonds and cashews)
Peas and beans (legumes), seeds
Soy products (such as soy flour and tofu)
Whole grains (such as brown rice and millet)
Suggested dietary amounts for adult women is around 320 mgs per day and around 420 mgs for adult men. Studies have found that someone suffering from migraines may benefit from supplementing with 400-600 mgs of magnesium oxide per day.
Chloride works with other electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, to help balance acids and bases in your body. It always comes with sodium in salt. If you’re getting enough sodium, you’re likely getting enough chloride.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. It is involved in skeletal mineralization, contraction of muscles, the transmission of nerve impulses, blood clotting, and secretion of hormones. The diet is the predominant source of calcium.
To keep your bones strong, aim for 1000 mgs of calcium per day. That means eating calcium-rich foods like leafy greens, seeds, beans, lentils, almonds, soft bones (i.e., canned sardines), and cruciferous vegetables.
Phosphorus intake seemingly continues to increase as a result of the growing consumption of highly processed foods, especially restaurant meals, fast foods, and convenience foods. Most people are not lacking and in fact, studies show that some people may even get too much of it.
Do I need electrolytes?
Do you eat mostly whole foods, a low carb diet or fast regularly?
When you eliminate processed foods, you also eliminate a lot of sodium. Which is good, because you don't want the chemicals and toxins that come with the processed foods! But, if you don’t get into the habit of adding salt to your meals, you may become sodium deficient. Sodium deficiency becomes even more likely on a low-carb or whole foods diet.
On top of the fact that whole foods are already low in sodium, you also lose sodium at higher rates. Why? Because a low-carb diet keeps the hormone insulin low. Low insulin puts your kidneys into sodium excretion mode. You pee out A LOT of sodium. Low insulin also keeps a hormone called aldosterone low, creating a similar effect. Sodium and potassium both are lost more rapidly.
Plus, low-carb diets tend to restrict excellent potassium sources like fruits and potatoes. Without some planning, a potassium deficiency can also more likely. Fasting depletes sodium and potassium via similar mechanisms. With insulin suppressed during a fast, you lose more electrolytes through urine.
How do I replenish my electrolytes?
I always recommend increasing your intake of any nutrient through your food rather than supplements when possible. So how can you add in more of these super important minerals?
A 2018 study showed that coconut water increased the amount of potassium, chloride and citrate in urine. Coconut water contains natural electrolytes. For example, 1 cup has 600 milligrams (mg) of potassium. Add a cup to your daily routine or add it into a smoothie. My kids love coconut water! Just be sure to buy brands that are unsweetened and preferably organic!.
Pickle Juice. It may sound strange, but pickle juice has received a lot of attention from sports and exercise nutrition experts due to its extraordinary electrolyte properties. It contains at least eight times more sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium than standard sports drinks.
Unpasteurized pickle juice (store bought is usually pasteurized) can also contain large amounts of lactobacillus, one of several healthy gut bacteria! Yay for added benefits! Here is a quick recipe to make your own with all the beneficial bacteria!
For additional food sources, below is a reference chart so you can start adding them into your weekly meal plan!
For a convenient "on the go" electrolyte boost, I like to add a powdered mix to my water. I prefer LMNT Recharge Electrolyte Powders because they contain ample sodium, magnesium and potassium.
You can also make your own electrolyte beverage by combining:
½ teaspoon salt (provides ~1 gram sodium)
500 mg potassium citrate powder (provides ~200 mg potassium)
¼ teaspoon of magnesium malate (provides ~60 mg magnesium)
your favorite flavored water enhancer (avoid brands that have artificial sugars and colors!)
Order what you need here.
The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting a doctor. Consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website.