Electrolytes refer to particles that dispense either a positive or negative electric charge when mixed in water. The word electrolyte is derived from the Greek words ‘electro’ which is a prefix for electricity and ‘lytos’ meaning ‘can be untied or loosened’.
In terms of nutrition, electrolytes refer to the vital minerals that are generally present in blood, sweat, and urine. These minerals release positive and negative ions which are used for metabolic functions by the body.
Electrolytes are extremely vital for the normal and healthy functioning of the human body. The common and major electrolytes found in the body are sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphate, magnesium, chloride, and bicarbonate (1).
Electrolytes provide the nutrients required for the interaction between one and another and with the muscles, nerve and tissue cells in the body.
Electrolytes are used by the body to facilitate good muscle and nerve functions, maintain acidity balance and hydration. Lack or imbalance of electrolytes can cause adverse effects on health.
7 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Electrolyte Supplementation
Healthy people do not require electrolyte supplementation as it can be obtained by following a healthy diet every day. Mild symptoms of lack of electrolytes can also be set right by increasing the intake of specific foods.
Certain medical conditions or high-activity lifestyle may necessitate electrolyte supplementation for a faster replacement of fluids and faster recovery. The various benefits and functions of electrolyte supplements are provided below.
Electrolytes Support Nervous System Functions
Electrolytes help maintain the balance of fluids in the body for consistent hydration that is vital for various functions in the body including the nervous system.
The nervous system is a complex but sensitive system of nerves that helps transmit electrical signals from the brain to all parts of the body. Electrolytes play a vital role in enabling the signaling process.
The body needs sodium, potassium, and magnesium to complete the brain communication process. Sodium launches the electrical cells for nerve cells to begin communication. While potassium helps to neutralize the nerve cell to restart subsequent electrical impulses, magnesium takes care of the speedy transmission of these electrical impulses to complete the process (2).
An imbalance in any of these electrolytes may hamper hydration and result in lower cognitive abilities, decreased concentration and slower processing and reaction time.
Summary: Electrolytes are important to help the brain transmit electrical signals via nerve cells to all parts of the body. Sodium, potassium, and magnesium play equal parts in supporting brain functions.
Electrolytes Support Muscle Function
Electrolytes are vital for normal muscle contractions. Calcium is the primary electrolyte required for muscle contraction (3).
Magnesium also plays an important role in helping the muscles to relax after contraction. Other electrolytes such as potassium and sodium also help in this function.
Imbalances with extremely high or extremely low variances are prone to result in muscle weakness or cramps.
Summary: Electrolytes aid in efficient muscle contractions. Imbalances in the level of important electrolytes can cause weakness or cramps in muscles.
Fluid balances especially water is required for hydration of each cell in the body. Fluid maintenance with electrolytes is essential for various functions and to maintain nutritional levels in the body (4).
Research indication that regulation of water and sodium is required for the maintenance of homeostasis. Disturbances in the balance of water and sodium may lead to acute or chronic diseases (5).
Another study showed that when sodium chloride solutions were infused into the colon, it had an osmotic effect and there was a linear relationship effect on the rate of net water, sodium and chloride absorption (6).
Summary: Electrolytes and water balance help manage various functions in the body. Studies have shown that sodium helps in osmosis and regulation of sodium and water levels for homeostasis and the prevention of chronic diseases.
Internal pH Levels
The human body has an internal pH or acid-base balance which it regulates for overall health (7). The pH levels for blood are usually between 7.35 – 7.45 and deviations from this usually mean there is either too much acid or it is more alkaline.
The pH levels of body fluids can vary but all of them depend on electrolytes to maintain their required pH levels. Too much variance in the pH levels can lead to severe complications. Studies show that oral administration of electrolytes with increased glucose can help restore fluid balances especially when there is sickness (8).
Summary: The human body requires a proper pH or acid-base balance to be healthy and too much variance can have implications. Electrolytes with glucose have been observed to help maintain the fluid and pH balance of the body in diseases.
Electrolytes May Enhance Performance During Exercises
Sportspersons are often known to use sports drinks or electrolyte supplements as they engage in regular intense exercises to maintain fitness.
Sports organizations often recommend intake of fluids with a combination of water and electrolytes before, during and after exercise to maintain hydration, replace sweat losses, avert dehydration and prevent risks of medical conditions (9).
The American College of Sports Medicine’s position on electrolyte and fluid replacement is that electrolyte before exercise helps in starting exercises with normal electrolyte levels, while supplementation during and after exercise replaces deficits in electrolytes (10).
Since most of the electrolyte loss is attributed to sweat, measuring sweating rate and sodium loss through sweat in different individuals, may be beneficial in recommending correct electrolyte and fluid replacements (11).
Summary: Sports organizations recommend electrolyte supplementation to athletes before, during and after exercise to maintain fluid balance and replace electrolyte deficits incurred through sweat loss. Measuring sweating rate and sodium sweat concentrations in individuals can help in recommending the right amounts of electrolyte replacements.
Electrolytes Can Help Hydrate During Illness
The importance of electrolyte supplements during sickness cannot be stressed enough. Even doctors recommend electrolyte supplementation as the first line of treatment in many medical conditions.
Short bouts of vomiting or diarrhea may not be risky but persistent bouts impact health as it results in loss of essential fluids and electrolytes. This is more so in instances of children who get affected by gastroenteritis.
The American Academy of Pediatrics along with other committees have recommended oral rehydration therapy as the first step of treatment followed by refeeding after hydration to reduce the impact of diarrhea in young children rather than anti-diarrheal medications (12).
Researchers also say that oral rehydration solutions (ORS) are more effective for treating very young children with gastroenteritis, rather than drinks such as cola, apple juice or sports drinks which are not suitable for children in these conditions (13).
In severe dehydration or diseases with other underlying conditions, just supplementing with electrolytes may not help. Medical advice should be sought if symptoms don’t come down or condition does not improve in 24 hours.
Summary: Conditions such as severe vomiting or diarrhea especially in children result in fluid and electrolyte depletion. ORS is very effective and should be the first line of treatment rather than using high-sugar juices or sports drinks to treat such conditions.
Electrolytes May Help Protect from Heatstroke
Environments with too much heat can induce rashes or result in dangerous heat strokes. The human body is designed to sustain as much as required and release it when required through sweating.
The first symptoms of heatstroke are heat exhaustion, headaches, and nausea which can be treated immediately with adequate rest in a naturally cool environment and with electrolyte supplementation (14).
Research on a 5-km armed cross-country trainee shows that a timely supplementation of glucose, and sodium and potassium ions could lower the incidence of heatstroke (15).
Summary: Heatstrokes can be dangerous and life-threatening. Heat exhaustion is one of the first symptoms of heat stroke and can be treated with electrolytes supplementation.
Electrolyte Imbalance and Its Causes
The human body regulates the electrolyte levels in the blood and balances them for use in various bodily functions. But sometimes due to various factors, electrolyte levels in the blood can dip or rise to above or below normal levels resulting in electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolyte imbalances in the body are strongly dependent on the water levels and higher or lower concentration of certain electrolytes such as sodium or potassium.
Imbalances in electrolytes can occur due to a variety of reasons such as exercise, sweating, dehydration, and other illnesses.
The human body procures electrolytes from the variety of food and fluids that one consumes daily to replace the electrolytes lost in daily activities such as sweating, exercise, and passing of stools and urine.
Listed below are the various factors that can contribute to electrolyte imbalance (16).
1. Poor Diet: Poor, unhealthy or inadequate food intake can contribute to electrolyte imbalance (17).
Often, the consumption of foods high in sodium is the norm. Non-consumption of foods high in other essential electrolytes can spell havoc on health.
2. Sweating: A common cause that leads to electrolyte imbalance. Sweating makes you lose water as well as electrolytes such as sodium and chloride.
Normal losses can be replaced by electrolytes in diet, but athletes who engage routinely in high-intensity exercises and for longer durations sweat more but with variance in individual sweat electrolyte concentrations (18).
In such cases, where fast recovery is required for participation in subsequent training or competitions, athletes may be recommended a rapid replenishment of electrolytes to bridge electrolyte deficits (19).
3. Vomiting and Diarrhea: Dehydration due to loss of fluids in conditions such as vomiting and diarrhea can be a serious cause of electrolyte imbalance (20).
Oral supplementation of electrolytes works fast and best though serious cases may require hospitalization for Intravenous fluid monitoring.
4. Kidney Diseases: The kidneys play a crucial role in the balance of electrolytes and maintaining a good acid-base balance in the body. Renal failure and other kidney diseases may impact the electrolyte balance (21).
5. Anorexia Nervosa: An eating disorder that can affect potassium balance in the body severely. Laxative abuses are common in this disorder which creates electrolyte imbalances quickly (22).
6. Thermal Burns: Scientific studies show that thermal burns can cause significant electrolyte imbalances especially that of phosphorus and calcium (23).
7. Heart Failure and Cancer: Electrolyte imbalances can be easily aggravated in people with cancer (24).
Even certain medications such as diuretics used in the treatment of heart failure may trigger electrolyte imbalances (25).
8. Age: Aging can cause electrolyte imbalances in the elderly. Studies show that pathological, traumatic events and even drugs can cause major variance in electrolytes in aged people (26).
9. Chemotherapy: Electrolyte disorders can be caused by chemotherapy treatments. Cisplatin is a first-line cytotoxicity treatment in platinum-chemotherapy that can commonly result in electrolyte imbalance (27).
10. Diabetes: Diabetes can affect electrolyte balance in the body. Research shows that diabetes mellitus patients have significantly depleted levels of magnesium, potassium and phosphate levels in the body (28).
Electrolyte imbalances can be treated if identified early. Though some electrolyte imbalances are asymptomatic, most of them can be narrowed down and identified with certain symptoms they display.
Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance
Electrolyte imbalances are very common during vomiting, diarrhea and people tend to get dehydrated due to fluid loss. Even intense exercises that use energy and result in excessive sweating can trigger electrolyte imbalances.
Symptoms for electrolyte imbalance are usually dependent on the severity of the condition and the disproportion in the level of an electrolyte, whether it is high or low.
While a mild imbalance in electrolytes may not present proper symptoms, acute imbalances are noticeable and symptoms usually manifest rapidly.
The 4 main electrolytes are magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium. An imbalance in any or some of these electrolytes can present some of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations or irregular heart rhythms
- Muscle weakness, cramps, aches, twitching
- Bone disorders
- Variation in blood pressure
- Confusion or inability to concentrate
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Extreme fatigue
- Nervous system disorders such as convulsion and seizures
- Anxiety, restlessness
- Excessive thirst
- Loss of appetite
- Sudden weight loss or gain
Sometimes, due to the breakdown of bone tissue, there is an excess of calcium in the body. Apart from some of the above-mentioned symptoms, signs of excess calcium include:
- Frequent urination
- Dry mouth
- Stomach pain
Severe electrolyte imbalances can display neurological or cardiac-health related symptoms that require urgent medical intervention and treatment (29), (30).
Visit a practitioner if you experience any of the above symptoms and your doctor can help suggest the ideal method of treatment to set right your electrolyte imbalance.
6 Ways to Solve an Electrolyte Imbalance
While mild imbalance in electrolytes may be asymptomatic or have a profound effect, extreme imbalances can be disastrous and need immediate intervention.
A timely diagnosis of electrolyte or fluid imbalances becomes critical, especially for patients in Critical Care Units (CCU) (31).
Electrolyte imbalances are generally diagnosed by a medical care practitioner by checking the electrolyte levels through specific tests.
Once the medical history, symptoms and required tests are assessed and checked, your doctor will discuss the line of treatment. Some of the factors crucial in setting right electrolyte imbalances are:
The body normally gets its electrolytes from your regular diet. When electrolyte imbalances are minor or are not caused by serious diseases, changes to the daily diet makes all the difference.
Cutting down on processed foods with high-sodium content and resorting to healthy foods that provide essential electrolytes will help improve electrolyte imbalances (32).
Summary: Electrolyte imbalances can be taken care of by making certain dietary changes. Reducing high-sodium foods and increasing intake of fruits, veggies and nuts is recommended to improve electrolyte levels.
Sodium is one of the primary and common electrolytes which plays a vital role in balancing water levels in the body. A high-sodium diet leads to water retention and a low-sodium diet causes dehydration and excessive thirst owing to salt and water loss which in turn can affect the balance of other electrolytes too.
Hypernatremia, a condition where high levels of sodium are present with less water content, occurs in diabetic people, older adults and those who consume processed foods in excess.
Sodium loss can occur due to diarrhea, exercises or usage of diuretics when there is heavy fluid loss. Monitoring your diet and cutting down on processed foods to balance the amount of sodium you consume will provide relief from lethargy, weakness, dehydration, etc (33).
Summary: High or low levels of sodium can have a deep impact on the fluid balance in the body. Minimizing the number of processed foods and monitoring salt intake helps prevent sodium imbalances.
Adequate Intake of Water
Electrolyte levels are relative to the total water content in your body. Water levels determine electrolyte balance and dehydration or overhydration can both affect electrolyte levels immensely (34).
High-intensity exercises, conditions such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever, pregnant and lactating women all require a higher intake of water to lower the risk of dehydration, kidney stones, and urinary infections.
Hyponatremia or overhydration can result in dilution and excretion of sodium through means of excess hydration which can cause nausea, dizziness, and body imbalance.
Determining the right amount of water varies in individuals and depends on factors such as temperature and climate, dietary intake, body metabolism, lifestyle, and age.
Instead of adhering to the standard “eight glasses a day”, drinking enough to pass clear, colorless urine every 3 – 4 hours is also a good measure to determine your individual needs (35).
Summary: Adequate water levels in the body are crucial for electrolyte balance. Dehydration and overhydration are potentially risky and water consumption in individuals should be based on various factors and not general standards.
Medications that are given to critically-ill patients or for certain conditions such as heart diseases, blood pressure, cancer or chemotherapy, etc.can impact electrolyte levels heavily (36).
Serious imbalances are common in patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer (37).
High levels of potassium and lower calcium, magnesium or sodium levels can result in palpitations, anxiety, insomnia or digestive problems. Potassium and sodium levels can be affected in patients who are prescribed diuretics or laxatives (38).
High levels of stress can impact hormones and medication given to reduce anxiety and stress can have a direct effect on electrolyte levels (39).
Noticeable changes in electrolytes should be discussed with your doctor to adjust medication and reduce the risks of electrolyte imbalance.
Summary: Prescribed medications given for various conditions may have a negative impact on electrolyte balance. Symptoms should be addressed by a doctor to adjust medications to provide relief.
Replenish Post Exercise
Fluid and electrolyte loss is inevitable in exercise routines and it becomes essential to rehydrate to make up for the loss. Hydrating oneself with water before, during and after workouts helps maintain water balance especially where long-duration training is involved.
High-intensity training or exercises can result in rapid loss of fluids which need to be replaced post-workouts for recovery and subsequent training sessions. Since both sodium and water need to be replaced, the ideal way to replace would be to drink a mixture of water and other electrolytes as available in sports drinks (40).
Consuming water and electrolytes to restore fluid balance in the body will help prevent muscle cramps, exhaustion, dizziness, fainting and intense changes in heart rhythm.
Summary: Electrolyte and fluid loss is unavoidable in physical training sessions. Replacement with sports drinks or oral solutions is recommended especially post-workouts for faster recovery.
Often, most of the electrolyte imbalances involve very high or very low levels of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Of these, people are usually found with low levels of magnesium and potassium. Disturbances in magnesium levels trigger secondary potassium depletion (41).
Doctors can prescribe individual supplementation of potassium and magnesium, if there is a high imbalance or add daily doses of multivitamins if the imbalance is low or moderate.
Most of the time correct diagnosis and treatment with electrolyte supplements bring a positive response in electrolyte levels.
Summary: Imbalances can occur in all electrolytes, with lower levels of magnesium and potassium being common. Individual supplementation or just an added multi-vitamin and mineral tablets can be prescribed depending on the extremity of imbalance.
The Natural Sources of Electrolytes
Nature has a bountiful electrolyte store ready for use. We only need to know where to look for them! Foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, and seeds offer the necessary electrolytes to meet our daily requirements and maintain electrolyte balance.
Besides electrolytes, these foods also supply a variety of nutrients that benefit our health. The best and easiest way to get electrolytes in adequate quantities is to incorporate such foods into our daily diet and make it healthy.
Apart from these foods, the consumption of salt contributes to sodium and chloride balance in the body. Bicarbonate, another electrolyte, is naturally produced in the body and hence does not need to be obtained from the diet.
Given below is a detailed list of electrolytes with Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) and the food sources which can provide electrolytes (42).
- RDA: 1,300 milligrams/day
- Food Sources: Raw milk, yogurt, cheese, kefir, sardines, almonds, soy, leafy greens
- RDA: Not exceeding 2,300 milligrams/day
- Food Sources: Cheese, olives, pickles, table salt
- RDA: 4,700 milligrams/day
- Food Sources: Bananas, avocados, potatoes, sweet potato, spinach, cabbage, beans, beetroot and dried fruits such as apricots, prunes, dates, and raisins
- RDA: 1,250 milligrams/day
- Food Sources: Milk, milk products, meat, fish, poultry, legumes, seeds, nuts
- RDA: 420 milligrams/day
- Food Sources: Nuts, seeds, avocados, bananas, beans, spinach, whole grains, dark chocolate and seafood such as salmon, tuna and mackerel
- RDA: 2,300 milligrams/day
- Food Sources: Table salt, seaweed, rye, tomatoes, lettuce, celery, olives
Apart from electrolytes, certain foods have rich water content and provide good hydration to the body. They are:
- Coconut water
- Fruits such as watermelon, citrus fruits, kiwi, pineapple
- Vegetables such as cucumber, celery, bell peppers, lettuce, radish
The Final Note
Electrolytes are particles that release a positive or a negative charge when mixed in water. They help hydrate the body and aid in bodily functions including muscle functions, the body’s pH balance, and proper functioning of the nervous system.
Imbalances in electrolytes can occur due to fluid loss, dehydration, kidney problems and poor food intake, Exhaustion, muscle weakness, spasms, confusion, dry mouth, etc. are some of the common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance.
The body’s daily requirement of electrolytes can be managed with a good healthy diet, whereas situations such as intense exercises or illness require beneficial electrolyte supplementation.
Unnecessary supplementation can cause higher levels of electrolytes that can impact the balance as well. Electrolyte supplementation is best commenced on a doctor’s recommendation to provide maximum benefits to your health.