“Electrolytes” might sound like some futuristic sci-fi robot, but they’re actually very real compounds that have a great impact on the human body.
They’re mostly associated with issues of dehydration, which is why many energy and sports drinks promise to deliver big doses of them. Any time your body loses fluids, you’ll also lose electrolytes, which is why restoring them is important—and why knowing natural sources of them is essential.
More about the fundamental role of electrolytes
The simplest definition of electrolytes is: a type of mineral that carries an electric charge. In physiological terms, that means compounds like sodium, potassium, and magnesium that turn into ions that can provide a current to control fluid balance within the body.
Electrolytes are made up of salts, acids, bases, and proteins; they are the most abundant type of solutes in bodily fluids. As such, the body requires electrolytes in order to maintain proper functionality. Here are some of the main things that electrolytes do:
- Maintain proper balance between acid and base pH levels in the body
- Control proper fluid levels throughout the body and all the organs
- Regulate proper muscle and nerve function: By carrying electrical impulses throughout the body at the cellular level, electrolytes stimulate reactions in neighboring cells, which helps promote proper muscle contractions as well as nerve synergy
The different minerals known as electrolytes
Electrolytes themselves aren’t actually one independent substance. Rather, they can be any one of several different minerals that are part of the average diet. The most common types of electrolytes found in foods and beverages include:
Potassium is found in a huge range of fruits and vegetables, including collard greens, bananas, oranges, and melons; even beans have potassium. In addition to being one of the key electrolytes, this mineral can help to naturally lower blood pressure, prevent bone loss, reduce the chance of developing kidney stones, and help support normal cellular function.
When grouped together, these two electrolytes form common table salt. As such, the combo is one of the most commonly ingested electrolytes in the American diet, easily found in beef, cheese, olives, and any canned foods that include salt. Though it’s essential to have some on a daily basis, it’s important to limit intake of sodium chloride to about 2,300 milligrams a day since excess can increase blood pressure levels.
Magnesium is another electrolyte responsible for regulating fluids in the body. Even better, magnesium works along with potassium to help reduce blood pressure levels. It also helps support stronger bones and teeth (and reduces the risk of osteoporosis) and helps to regulate nerve and muscle functions. Find good stores of it in leafy greens, cereals, nuts, and beans.
Calcium is the most widely distributed and abundant electrolyte in the human body. It’s commonly known as the mineral responsible for strong bones and teeth, but it also helps with muscle contraction, nerve impulse control, heart health, and even blood clotting. It’s abundant in dairy products but also in eggs, beans, and some fruits like figs or apricots.
This mineral works along with magnesium and calcium to promote a strong skeletal system. As well, phosphorus also helps with the growth, repair, and overall health of cells within the body and can help to produce energy from carbs and fats. Meats and dairy are the main sources of phosphorus; therefore vegans and vegetarians may need to pay careful attention to their phosphorus intake to ensure they’re getting enough (supplementation could help with this if necessary).
It’s important to remember that just a single type of electrolyte isn’t enough to maintain a healthy body. Instead, the right balance of essential minerals should be the focus. Adhering to a healthier nutrition plan will naturally ensure that proper levels of electrolytes like those listed above are a regular part of your diet.
Dehydration and low electrolytes
Electrolyte imbalances can be common, with dehydration one of the biggest culprits. In fact, according to recent data, about 75 percent of Americans might be dealing with chronic dehydration without even realizing it.
Poor fluid intake can be a factor; when the body sweats or uses up fluids, it also eliminates any electrolytes found within them. As such, the first step towards maintaining proper electrolyte balance is simply to make sure that you are staying hydrated on a consistent basis. Water is always a good bet, but coconut water is even better since it has natural electrolytes.
Signs of low electrolytes
An electrolyte imbalance can trigger a lot of different symptoms, many the same as dehydration:
- Muscle aches, twitches, or spasms
- Frequent headaches
- Constant feelings of thirst
- Irregular heart rate
- Joint pain
- Dizziness that occurs when standing up from a sitting or lying positions
- Changes in appetite
- Diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive issues
If the issue is poor fluid balance, the issue can be easily treated (or prevented) by simply drinking more liquids and eating more natural sources of electrolytes. However, if issues persist even with diet and lifestyle modifications, you might consider seeking the advice of a doctor.
Natural sources of electrolytes
While many sports drinks have been branded as a quick fix for replenishing electrolytes (and they are quite successful at it), there is one big problem: They’re often loaded with sugar and extra calories. Because of this, it’s better to focus on replacing electrolytes through other, more natural means.
Several foods and drinks make it easy to do just that (in fact, many you might already be regularly enjoying):
- Peanut Butter: Not only is peanut butter packed with protein, it also contains a good amount of sodium. Natural peanut butter goes well with everything from a banana (another source of electrolytes) to a bagel, or just enjoy it by the spoonful.
- Bananas: Eating a banana is one of the best ways to get sufficient potassium. In fact, a single banana can replenish as much as 600 milligrams of potassium. It’s also an easy to carry, portable food or can be blended in a smoothie (or as ice cream!)
- Milk: Believe it or not, milk can be just as effective at replenishing electrolytes as a sports drink. That’s because it delivers a high concentration of calcium, sodium, and potassium alongside helpful carbs and proteins. Those who can enjoy dairy (in all its forms) will benefit greatly from this option. You might also try coconut milk, since the fruit naturally has calcium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, and potassium, providing even more electrolyte power.
- Coconut water: Like coconut milk, coconut water is a super source of electrolytes, combining all of the essential minerals including calcium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, and potassium; it’s also low-calorie and has a thinner consistency if you prefer something closer to water to stay hydrated.
- Leafy greens: Turnip greens, kale, and collards are provide high levels of potassium, and can increase intake of magnesium as well. They’re a superfood that helps with all-around nutrition as well as electrolyte balance.
- Beans: Beans like kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans all provide high levels of potassium, calcium, and even protein. This improves energy levels while replenishing electrolytes at the same time.
A note on electrolyte supplements
While a balanced diet is the key to getting plenty of electrolytes, supplements are still a viable option as long as they don’t contain huge amounts of added sugars. Here are two good options:
Vega Electrolyte Hydrator, Berry
Specially formulated to contain all of the essential electrolytes the body needs, this powder is a great way to help replenish the body with fluids (especially after a workout). It does so with a sweet berry taste provided by red beet extract and natural pomegranate and raspberry flavors.
The apple berry version of Vega Electrolyte Hydrator features 23 plant-based ingredients, including glucosamine, maca, devil’s claw, L-arginine and, American ginseng. It's been shown to increase muscle glycogen re-synthesis, a crucial component of post-workout recovery.