Intense workouts can often make you feel tired and dehydrated even though you hydrate yourself by drinking plenty of water. The reason you feel this way is because you don't only lose water when you sweat but some important electrolytes as well. Another way many become electrolyte-depleted is through dietary changes. For instance, on the ketogenic diet, as carb intake decreases, electrolytes are increasingly excreted from the body in urine. And when you drink water, you are replenishing the water you lost but not the electrolytes, which can change the concentration of electrolytes in your body. Any deviation in serum electrolyte levels, whether above or below normal electrolyte levels, causes electrolyte imbalance and results in many different symptoms, some of which include weakness, fatigue, nausea, headaches, and difficulty in sleeping.
You have heard that sports drinks can help restore electrolyte imbalance and probably have a vague idea of what it means because you hear about it so often. But what exactly are electrolytes and why do we need them? How can they be so important that you have symptoms of electrolyte imbalance after working out for a short time? What are normal electrolyte levels and how do you test for electrolyte imbalance? And most importantly, are there any natural remedies for electrolyte imbalance? If these are some questions you have about electrolyte imbalance, keep reading for answers to these questions and to learn more about electrolytes.
Simply put, electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. While there are many minerals present in the body in different forms, the minerals dissolved in the body's fluids like blood, sweat and urine, form electrolytes that are either positively or negatively charged ions. Some of the most important electrolytes in nutrition are:
Electrolyte solutions are present both inside and outside the cells where they perform several critical roles such as balance the amount of water in the body, regulate blood pressure, transmit nerve impulses, enable muscle contraction, maintain a healthy pH, and are even responsible for normal contraction and relaxation of the heart. These functions are carried out when electrolytes are present within a normal range in the body fluids. However, a shift in normal levels of one or more of these electrolytes can cause electrolyte imbalance and affect any one or more of these vital functions, which, over time, can lead to health complications. (1,2)
Levels of electrolytes in the body are determined by a blood test called the serum electrolyte panel or the electrolyte panel that measures the level of four electrolytes - sodium, chloride, potassium, and bicarbonate in serum. (3, 4) Another test, the anion gap blood test, based on the results of the serum electrolyte panel measures the gap between the negatively charged and positively charges electrolytes. This test determines if there is an acid/base imbalance of electrolytes or in other words, indicates if blood acidity is above or below the normal reference range. (5)
According to the Mayo Clinic, normal electrolyte levels and anion gap for adults should fall between the following reference values (3):
If values for any one of these electrolytes are outside their set range, it can cause electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolyte imbalance can be brought about by various reasons, and although drinking too much water can cause electrolyte imbalance, it mostly occurs when the body loses a large amount of water. But you have to keep in mind that when water is lost from the body, it takes some of the electrolytes dissolved in it as well, which affects the overall concentration of electrolytes. Some causes of electrolyte imbalance include (1,2):
Electrolyte imbalance can bring about a wide range of symptoms such as (1,2):
Making foods naturally rich in electrolytes a part of your daily diet is probably the best and simplest way to correct, and maybe even prevent electrolyte imbalance. If you regularly engage in strenuous exercise, keep a rehydrating drink in hand so that you can make up for electrolyte losses incurred during your workout. Sodium and potassium are the most common electrolytes lost during exercise and you can easily replenish them as they are found in many foods.
Thirst is the first sign that indicates your electrolytes are not in balance – so listen to your body and keep yourself hydrated by drinking fluids when you are thirsty. Make sure you drink fluids before, during and after exercising to make up for water loss. Squeeze a lemon to add potassium and a pinch of salt to add sodium to your water to make up for loss of these electrolytes during exercising. Opt for the healthier sea salt or other natural salts like Celtic or Himalayan salt which will provide small amounts of potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, bromine, zinc and iron in addition to sodium. But remember to go easy on the salt as you need only small amounts to restore sodium levels. (6, 7)
If you are unable to meet the needs of electrolytes through food or want to have an easy electrolyte drink when you are on the go, you may want to consider an electrolyte powder formula that you can easily dissolve in water. Electrolyte formulas are a good way to replenish electrolytes if you are on a keto or low-carb diet, have a stomach bug that causes diarrhea or vomiting, or are on diuretics that increase the loss of electrolytes. But not all electrolyte formulas are the same, so do your research and look for electrolyte powders that do not contain added sugars, food colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or additives. The one that Dr. Zyrowski uses with his patients and uses himself is Electrolyte +. Electrolyte infused water will help keep you hydrated and provide you with the necessary electrolytes while not adding to your calorie intake. (19)
Coconut water is a natural electrolyte drink that is rich in potassium and contains small amounts other electrolytes like sodium, calcium, and magnesium. The added advantage of coconut water is that it is a refreshing drink low in calories. When shopping for coconut water make sure you read the nutrition facts label and pick one that does not contain added sugar, colors, preservatives or other additives. (8)
Although not often thought of as an electrolyte drink, milk is an excellent source of the electrolytes calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and sodium. In addition to providing electrolytes, some studies report that the protein and carbohydrates present in milk may help repair muscle tissue, refuel the body after a workout, and decrease the effect of muscle loss. Milk has also been shown to be an effective post-workout beverage that is cheaper than energy or sports drinks. (9,10,11)
If you are not lactose intolerant or a vegan, consider plain milk or fruit smoothies as a healthy, natural remedy for electrolyte imbalance. In addition to milk, you can also add variety to your meals by including milk products like sour cream and probiotic yogurt to your diet as these are good sources of electrolytes as well. (12, 13,14)
Making electrolyte-rich foods a part of your diet will ensure that you have a constant supply of electrolytes. Fruits such as bananas, apricots, oranges, apples, tomatoes and avocados and freshly squeezed juices of oranges, tart cherries and tomato are good sources of potassium. An added benefit is that they also supply small amounts of other electrolytes such as magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus.
Potassium rich vegetables include spinach, sweet potatoes, baked potatoes, winter squash and zucchini, while tomatoes, lettuce, celery, olives, and salt are good sources of chloride. Beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables like spinach, turnip greens, and kale are good sources of magnesium, and most green vegetables like kale, bok choy, and collard greens contain calcium. (15,16, 17,18)
Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables daily will provide you with sufficient amounts of electrolytes to prevent electrolyte imbalance while also providing you with many vitamins, minerals, and the added benefit of antioxidants.
Words of caution
If you are experiencing electrolyte imbalance, avoid carbonated drinks like soda and sports drinks that contain high amounts of sugar, artificial flavors, and colors. These will give you an energy boost for a short time but will not provide lasting relief. Instead, go for some or all of the natural remedies for electrolyte imbalance suggested above. Also bear in mind that by including foods rich in electrolytes in your diet, you have the added advantage of getting antioxidants and other essential nutrients that will help build a strong immune system and keep you healthy.
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