The Complete Guide to Electrolytes: Functions, Imbalance, Natural Sources, and Supplements

Electrolytes are commonly associated with energizing sports drinks. Athletes can be seen taking them before or after workouts, or even in between long training sessions.

Electrolytes perform several important functions in your body (1). They regulate fluid balance, nerve responses, muscle contractions, and even the beating of your heart.

Long, intense, and/or sweaty workout sessions can deplete your electrolytes (2). Medical conditions with vomiting and diarrhea can cause electrolyte deficiency. Replacing electrolytes is vital for your health.

Severe electrolyte imbalance results in weakness, muscle cramps, twitches, and heart arrhythmia. If the electrolyte deficiency is extreme, then cardiac arrest and death can occur.

While a balanced diet with nutrient-dense foods and drinks rich in electrolytes can help correct this imbalance, electrolyte supplements are the quickest way to replenish electrolytes in the body.

What are Electrolytes?

The term “electrolyte” refers to particles that have a positive or negative electric charge. Minerals such as sodium, potassium, and calcium are electrically charged particles.

In nutrition, the minerals found in our body fluids, such as blood and sweat, are known as electrolytes (3). As these minerals dissolve in fluids, positive or negative ions are formed.

The electrolytes in our body include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Phosphorus

Electrolytes have many important functions, including:

  • Electrolytes are vital for maintaining acid-base balance and water balance. They maintain fluid balance through osmosis and prevent dehydration.
  • Electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle functions in our body. They transmit nerve signals between cells in the body. Sodium ions send signals from the brain, using nerve cells, to communicate with all other cells in the body. These signals are called nerve impulses.
  • Electrolytes are required for stimulating muscle contractions, including the ones that keep our hearts beating. While calcium is needed for muscle contraction, magnesium is required for muscle relaxation.
  • Calcium ions play a vital role in blood clotting (4).
  • Electrolytes are essential for building new tissue.
  • The internal pH has to be at 7.35 to 7.45 for the body to function properly (5). Electrolytes regulate and maintain blood pH at optimum levels.
  • Sodium ions along with potassium and chloride regulate the fluid levels in blood plasma.

The Importance of Fluid and Electrolyte Balance

Of all the electrolytes, sodium plays the most prominent role in regulating fluid balance, both inside and outside the cells.

Intracellular fluid is present inside a cell. Extracellular fluid, such as blood plasma, is outside the cell wall. These fluids are primarily made up of water and electrolytes.

The fluid content on either side of a cell has to be at the right amount (6). When fluid concentration outside the cell wall is the same as inside the cell, the balance is maintained.

When this balance is disrupted, then fluids flow from the area of lower concentration to the concentration zone to recreate the balance. Thus electrolytes maintain fluid balance through osmosis (7). This prevents the cells from shriveling up due to dehydration and from bursting due to too much fluid filling them up.

For our bodies to maintain homeostasis, fluid and electrolyte balance is crucial.

  • It is necessary for our bodies to stay hydrated.
  • Cellular functions rely on this balance. 
  • Fluid and electrolyte balance also plays an important role in tissue perfusion (the blood flow for oxygen delivery and nutritional supply to cells).
  • The acid-base balance or the internal pH of the body depends on the fluid and electrolyte balance.
  • Management of many clinical conditions also requires fluids and electrolytes to be balanced correctly (8).

What is Electrolyte Imbalance?

Any abnormality in the electrolyte concentration in the body is called electrolyte imbalance or water-electrolyte imbalance. While electrolytes are indispensable for our bodily functions, too much or too little of these minerals can create havoc in our system.

Too much or not enough water, or mineral deficiencies in the body leads to electrolyte imbalance. This can result from the following:

  • Dehydration can result if you are not drinking enough water to replace the bodily fluids lost through sweating or urination. Illnesses, vomiting, and diarrhea can lead to dehydration. It is important to drink plenty of water and keep yourself hydrated, especially during hot seasons and after activities that cause you to sweat excessively.
  • Overhydration can result when your body holds too much water. This happens when you drink too much water or your kidney is not able to remove enough water to maintain the water-electrolyte balance. This can lead to water poisoning or water intoxication, which disrupts brain functioning (x). Dangerous drops in blood sodium levels, called hyponatremia, can cause coma and even death, if not treated immediately (16).
  • Kidney diseases: Electrolyte imbalance can result from chronic kidney diseases.  Hyperkalemia, due to abnormally high potassium levels, can cause life-threatening heart rhythm changes or even a heart attack (17).
  • Addison’s disease: This disorder of the adrenal glands can cause the elimination of sodium while increasing the retention of potassium, leading to electrolyte imbalance (18).
  • Diabetes: High glucose concentration in the blood affects the fluid-electrolyte balance and draws more water out of the cells and into the extracellular space. This results in lower plasma sodium levels (19).
  • Medications such as diuretics, laxatives, beta-blockers, corticosteroids, and chemotherapy drugs may cause electrolyte imbalance.
  • Eating disorders such as bulimia can disrupt electrolyte balance due to mineral deficiencies in the diet (20).

Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance

The symptoms of electrolyte imbalance depend primarily on the cause of the disorder. It also depends on the severity of the cause.

For example, low calcium or magnesium levels can lead to the weakening of bones and eventually osteoporosis. Such symptoms may develop slowly while some other indications of an electrolyte imbalance may be sudden and quite alarming.

In general, the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Fatigue or lethargy: The first symptom of magnesium deficiency you may experience is fatigue, followed by nausea and loss of appetite.
  • Muscle cramps: Magnesium, potassium, or sodium deficiency can cause muscle cramps, twitches, or spasms (21).
  • Muscle weakness may also indicate reduced levels of electrolytes, such as magnesium, in the body.
  • Numbness and tingling in limbs may be due to low calcium levels.
  • Extreme thirst: Lack of potassium may result in excessive urination and an urge to drink water frequently. Nausea, vomiting, bloating, constipation, and/or abdominal cramps may all be symptoms of potassium deficiency.
  • Irregular or fast heartbeats may be due to magnesium deficiency. Potassium deficiency is also known to cause heart palpitations (22).
  • Irritability and headaches may be due to low sodium levels in the blood. Phosphorus or calcium deficiency may also cause irritability and fatigue.
  • Confusion or disorientation: Magnesium deficiency can result in mental health disorders (23). Anxiety, irritability, loss of appetite, and weight change can occur if the body is low on phosphorus.
  • Changes in blood pressure: While high sodium levels can cause high blood pressure, not enough magnesium in your body can also spike your blood pressure.

6 Ways to Replenish Electrolytes

From your food intake to dietary supplements and physical activities, there are several strategies for improving and maintaining electrolyte balance.

  1. Have foods rich in electrolytes: Have a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of electrolyte-rich foods. Dairy products contain calcium, sodium, and potassium. Fruits such as bananas, avocados, watermelon, and pomegranate are rich sources of potassium.
  2. Drink plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated. Fruit juices and coconut water are rich in electrolytes. Watermelon offers you both water and electrolytes. Coffee and tea have diuretic properties, they make you urinate more often (9). Water is the best option to quench your thirst. But, keep in mind that drinking too much water can flush out and deplete electrolytes from your body.
  3. Avoid excessive sweating: Avoid strenuous physical activity, outdoors, when it’s hot or too sunny. Even if you are exercising indoors, use fans or air conditioning to prevent excessive sweating and loss of electrolytes.
  4. Replenish electrolytes after sweaty workouts: Make sure to replenish your body with fluids and electrolytes after intense and sweaty physical activities.
  5. Go easy on the salt: Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride. Packaged and processed foods tend to be high in salt. Consuming too much salt upsets the water-electrolyte balance.
  6. Avoid using over-the-counter diuretics and do not take them without your doctor’s guidance. Medications that increase the amount of water and salt flushed from the body, in the form of urine, are known as diuretics. While diuretics may help lower blood pressure, their prolonged use can create an electrolyte imbalance. 

Best Foods to Replenish Electrolytes

Your diet is the best way to replenish your electrolytes. From leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale to fruits, nuts, and more, there are numerous foods and drinks that help restore your electrolyte levels. 

1. Fruits

Fruits, in general, are good sources of electrolytes. While bananas are well known for their potassium content, avocados rate even higher on this scale. With 660 mg of potassium from just one average-sized avocado, you get about 22% of your daily potassium needs (10). Watermelon is another fruit that must be mentioned on any list of electrolyte-replenishing foods. With 92% water content, this fruit provides hydration along with its electrolytes (11).

2. Fruit juice

Although we have already mentioned fruits, fruit juices require a special mention as they offer more concentrated sources of electrolytes along with plenty of fluid for hydration. Drink lemonade or orange juice. Make smoothies using berries and pomegranates. Your options are limitless.

3. Coconut water

Undoubtedly one of nature’s best sources of replenishing electrolytes, coconut water contains key electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus (12).

4. Leafy vegetables

Spinach and kale are wonderful sources of calcium and magnesium. They are also rich in vitamin A and vitamin K (13). Other vegetables such as potatoes, broccoli, and beans are also good sources of electrolytes.

5. Soybeans and tofu

Tofu made from soybeans. According to the USDA nutrient database, just half a cup of firm tofu (126g) offers you about 299mg of potassium (14). Tofu is rich in protein, calcium, and iron.

6. Dairy products

From calcium to sodium, potassium, and magnesium, milk offers you four important electrolytes. Buttermilk is a drink that’s packed with potassium and you also get to quench your thirst with its high water content. If you are lactose intolerant, then have yogurt instead.

7. Fishes

Sardine, salmon, and mackerel are famous for their omega-3 content. They also offer you electrolytes such as calcium and phosphorus. Make sure to include them in your diet, along with other fish such as halibut, trout, and flounder

8. Bone broth

Slow-simmered bone broth, made from chicken, beef, or mutton bones, is quite hydrating and rich in electrolytes. Bone broth may be considered a perfect electrolyte replenishing food as it contains calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and chloride (15).

Supplements to Replenish Electrolytes

Although nutrient-dense fresh foods are the best way to replenish electrolytes, there are plenty of supplements that help you quickly rebuild your electrolyte stores.

  • Trace mineral supplements: If your electrolyte imbalance is due to the deficiency of any particular minerals, such as calcium or magnesium deficiency, then mineral supplements can help in bridging that nutritional gap.
  • Electrolyte-infused water: After intense workout sessions or physical activities on a hot day, electrolyte-infused waters are a great way to replenish lost electrolytes. Most brands of sports drinks with electrolytes tend to have added sugar or other unhealthy additives. So check the label to ensure you choose a healthy product with zero sugar. Look for products that are Non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, and dairy-free, if you are prone to allergic reactions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Best Way to Replenish Electrolytes?

The best way to quickly replenish electrolytes is to take electrolyte-infused water. Electrolyte stick packs are convenient to carry with you anywhere. They can be instantly mixed with water to make a quick drink that replenishes lost electrolytes. You can have them before, during, or after training. You should also have a balanced diet with foods and drinks that contain electrolytes. 

How Can I Get Electrolytes Naturally?

You can get electrolytes naturally from a variety of foods and drinks. Coconut water and bone broth supply you with key electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, chloride, and calcium.

What Foods are High in Electrolytes?

Fruits such as bananas, avocados, and watermelon are rich sources of potassium. Milk and dairy products such as yogurt and buttermilk have calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium.

Vegetables that offer plenty of electrolytes include potatoes, beans, broccoli, etc. while leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach contain both calcium and magnesium. Fruit juices, coconut water, and bone broth are drinks that replenish electrolytes quickly. 

Soybeans, tofu, fishes, poultry, veal, turkey, almonds, peanuts, raisins, and olives are some of the other foods that are high in electrolytes.

Before you go…

From regulating the body’s fluid balance and nerve responses to muscle contractions and more, electrolytes are necessary for maintaining optimal health.

If the fluid and electrolyte balance in our body is out of sync, this can result in serious health consequences. Too much or not enough water or a deficiency in specific electrolytes, such as sodium or potassium, can create electrolyte imbalances.

Dehydration and excessive sweating is the most common cause of electrolyte imbalance in healthy people. This can be easily rectified using electrolyte supplements and drinking plenty of water.

To avoid electrolyte imbalance, drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and have a diet that includes foods that are naturally high in electrolytes.

About Anju Mobin 65 Articles
Anju Mobin is a certified nutritionist with a 3-year graduate degree in B.Sc. Home Science (Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics). With an additional 4-year graduate degree in Fine Arts (BFA Applied Arts), she combines her passion for advertising with her knowledge of the health industry to create, develop and execute content marketing campaigns for healthcare products. She is the founder and managing editor of the health website fitnesshacks.org.