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Why You Need Electrolytes And How to Get Them

What you need to know to stay hydrated and keep your electrolytes balanced throughout the day.

Clear water bottle filled with lime green sports drink against a blue sky
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Our bodies are made up of 60% water, which is why it's important to hydrate on a regular basis. Staying hydrated is especially necessary during the summer, but even more important is maintaining your electrolytes. Electrolytes can be found in some bottled water, sports drinks, other beverages and as a powdered supplement. They're sometimes necessary when regular water isn't enough to keep you going. Usually, athletes are the target audience for these products since they're focused on consuming electrolytes to replenish any minerals they lose through sweat. But does the average person need electrolytes or are they just another health buzzword used for marketing?

While it's true that athletes do need to maintain their electrolytes, the average person should also be mindful of their electrolyte levels. You can get electrolytes in various ways, so you aren't stuck drinking a sports drink if it's not your thing. 

Here's what you need to know about electrolytes, how they function and the best ways to replenish them.

What are electrolytes?

Woman drinking electrolyte beverage after workout
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Simply put, electrolytes are essential minerals found in your blood, sweat and urine. They carry a positive or negative electrical charge used during the metabolic process and are responsible for controlling your nervous system, contracting your muscles, keeping you hydrated and helping regulate your body's acid/base, aka your pH levels. If this number is too high or too low, it throws off your pH and can cause an imbalance. A healthy pH level is between 7.36 to 7.44

Electrolytes created within your body include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, chloride and bicarbonate. You lose these key minerals when you are dehydrated, which can make you feel ill and cause other negative side effects.

What does an electrolyte imbalance look like?

Exhausted construction worker wipes forehead of sweat
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In order to keep your body functioning at its best, your electrolytes need to be well balanced, or in homeostasis. Fluid intake and output, acid-base balance, hormone secretion and normal cell function all impact electrolyte balance. 

"Not having enough electrolytes can lead to fatigue, headaches, nausea, blood pressure changes and muscle cramps," explains John Frigo, a National Strength and Conditioning Association certified trainer and running coach. This is especially true if you're active in excess heat, which can speed up electrolyte loss.

Electrolytes are typically lost through fluids, such as sweat or through the GI tract. When you exercise for long periods of time, one of the key electrolytes lost through sweat is sodium. Sodium and chloride are the two main electrolytes that work together to transport fluid throughout your body and keep the pH stable... which is why it's important to stay hydrated and keep your electrolytes up.

Overall, Frigo says if you eat a nutritious diet with plenty of whole foods, you'll get most of the electrolytes you need through your diet. But illnesses such as diarrhea or vomiting can cause loss of electrolytes and dehydrate you, putting your system at risk. 

Electrolyte imbalances are common in older adults as well as people with a history of kidney disease, heart failure, acute pancreatitis, respiratory failure, eating disorders, burns and more. If you're at risk of electrolyte imbalance, it's especially important to replenish electrolytes through foods or drinks containing sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium or magnesium. 

Just like losing electrolytes is bad for your body, your health can also be at risk if you have too many electrolytes. Conditions such as hyperchloremia (excess chloride), hyperkalemia (excess potassium) and hypernatremia (excess sodium) can result from dehydration, excess sweating or GI fluid loss, or as a side effect from certain medications or other health conditions. 

Electrolyte imbalance symptoms

Although electrolyte imbalance symptoms can vary depending on the type of imbalance, there are common symptoms to look out for:

  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Vomiting 
  • Abdominal cramps

If you suspect you have an electrolyte imbalance, you can get an electrolyte panel, a blood test from your doctor that measures your electrolyte levels. If the test finds that you do have an imbalance, your doctor can recommend a treatment to get you back on track.

The best way to get electrolytes 

Fruit board with mango, coconut, pomegranate, papaya and watermelon
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According to Morgyn Clair, a registered dietitian, foods that contain electrolytes include fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, citrus, watermelon, and other leafy greens. However, if you need a quick way to boost your electrolyte levels, drinking electrolyte-infused waters, coconut water, sports drinks, Pedialyte, mixing electrolyte tablets or powders with water are all good options. If you opt for a sports drink, though, it's important to be aware of its sugar content. A standard size bottle (12 oounces) can contain over 20 grams of added sugar, which is more than half of what is recommended to consume in a day. 

Although drinks like Gatorade are generally marketed towards athletes, a better alternative for workouts would be an electrolyte supplement, such as some of CNET's top sports drinks like Nuun Endurance or Liquid I.V. Hydration Multiplier. These tend to be lower in sugar, and consist of all the minerals your body needs immediately. If you're sensitive to caffeine, make sure to read the label because some brands may infuse products with caffeine or similar energy-boosting ingredients.

The bottom line

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Electrolytes are an important aspect of our health that shouldn't be neglected. They're responsible for some major functions in your body, and having an imbalance can be detrimental to your health. Although the average person can keep their electrolytes balanced with a healthy diet and proper hydration, it's good to know about other avenues in case you need a quick fix after a sweaty workout or a bout of illness. 

If you're concerned about your electrolyte levels and they seem consistently off, it's best to consult with a doctor who can provide the right tests and give you a proper diagnosis. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.