What are electrolytes and how do I know whether or not I’m getting enough of them?
When most people hear electrolytes, they immediately think of sports drinks and tablets used by athletes. If we’re exercising and sweating, we should be replenishing electrolytes as we go, right? The reality is, most of us aren’t sweating quite enough to call for additional replenishment.
So if we don’t need to consume electrolytes in the form of supplements for exercise, when and how should we consume them?
Here we’ll discuss what the major electrolytes are, why they are so important, where we can get them in our diet and how much we really need. You’ll be surprised to find out that you’re unintentionally taking in more electrolytes than you think!
What Are Electrolytes Responsible For?
Electrolytes are minerals that are essential for humans. In order for our bodies to function properly on a daily basis, adequate electrolyte consumption is required. Therefore, even when we aren’t exercising, we still need to make sure we’re getting enough electrolytes.
Electrolytes are responsible for:
- Conducting electricity throughout the body – think muscle contraction like the beating of your heart
- Regulating fluid levels (such as your blood)
- Nerve cell communication to other cells
- Aiding the process of blood clotting and tissue repair
- Regulating the blood’s pH
- The release of hormones
As you can see, electrolytes are responsible for some pretty important tasks. So what are these electrolytes and how do they perform these tasks?
The Major Electrolytes
Sodium is talked about quite frequently, but most people don’t know that it’s one of the most important electrolytes.
We generally hear about sodium in the context of limiting intake, and for good reason too. Processed food items in the average American diet are packed with sodium. Therefore it’s important to limit these processed products and monitor how much sodium we’re taking in. While we don’t want to consume an excess of sodium because that can lead to high blood pressure, heart complications and even fluid retention, we do need to make sure we’re getting enough (1).
The average American should aim to consume about 1500 mg – 2300 mg of sodium per day (2). Your specific sodium recommendation will vary depending upon age, physical activity levels, and any present disease states. For example, athletes expelling excessive amounts of sweat are also expelling excessive amounts of sodium. Because of this, they may need to replenish their levels in slightly higher amounts as opposed to the average person.
Sodium regulates the amount of fluid found outside of the cells, otherwise known as extracellular fluid (3). This is a particularly important function because both plasma (the fluid component of blood) and interstitial fluid (which helps feed the cells with oxygen and nutrients and excrete waste) make up the fluid outside of the cells (4).
Both plasma and interstitial fluid are involved in an abundance of body functions, so we really want to make sure we supply the body with adequate sodium to properly regulate them!
When we think about sodium it’s impossible not to think about potassium as well, the two electrolytes work hand-in-hand in the body.
They work together to regulate each other – together they form a pump-like mechanism that pushes out sodium in order to replace it with potassium in the cells. Why is this important? With the help of your kidneys, this pump removes excess sodium and excretes it via urine, ultimately aiding the prevention of high blood pressure due to high sodium levels (5).
In order for your heart, kidneys, and muscles to function properly, your body needs potassium. So how much potassium are we talking? About 4,500 mg – 4,700 mg per day is required for the average adult, but specific amounts vary depending upon age and gender (6).
When combined with sodium we get sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt! Chloride is another major electrolyte responsible for regulating fluid levels, blood pressure and the pH of fluids as well. It works together with both sodium and potassium to do this, making it vital for proper hydration.
On average, we should aim to consume 1,800 mg – 2,300 mg of chloride per day depending upon gender and age.
As the most abundant mineral in the human body, calcium is not only a prevalent electrolyte but also a very important one. In order for proper bone and teeth formation, hormone secretion, blood clotting, and nerve impulse communications to occur, our bodies need calcium (7).
The body absorbs calcium in the small intestine and requires Vitamin D to do so. That’s why supplements for bone health so often pair vitamin D with calcium and magnesium (we’ll get to the reason for magnesium in a bit).
When we don’t consume enough calcium through our diet, our body will pull the needed amounts from bone which may result in osteoporosis. So how much calcium do we need to prevent this? The average adult needs about 1,000 mg – 1,500 mg of calcium per day (8).
In terms of electrolytes, we don’t hear about magnesium nearly as much as some of the others. Even still, it’s responsible for some pretty important tasks. The majority of magnesium in the body is stored in bones and is similar to calcium in that it is responsible for bone and teeth formation.
Magnesium is also involved in enzyme (little catalysts that help start reactions in the body – think digestion of food) function along with the contraction and relaxation of muscles.
Recommended levels vary greatly depending upon both gender and age, to see how much you should be consuming check out this chart with all of the recommended intakes.
As the third electrolyte to help with the formation of bone and teeth, it’s safe to say electrolytes are pretty important for proper bone structure. Phosphorus is also responsible for the storage of energy, nerve function, and muscle contraction. Just like calcium, vitamin D is needed in order for phosphorus to be properly absorbed and the vast majority of it is stored in bone.
The average adult needs between 700 mg and 1250 mg of phosphorus per day. Just as the other electrolytes, this range varies based on both gender and age.
Sources of Electrolytes
Contrary to popular belief, we receive the vast majority of our needed electrolytes through food. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of electrolytes, as are dairy products, coconut water, nuts, seeds, and even eggs. To make sure you’re getting an ample amount of each electrolyte, try and maintain a well-rounded, variable diet made of mostly whole foods.
There are also tons of electrolyte-based sports drinks and tablets out there today that can help you replenish electrolytes quickly if you’re expelling them faster than the average person. Unfortunately, many of these products are packed with added sugar and sugar substitutes, making them less than ideal options for athletes looking to perform their best.
When deciding whether or not to use these products and which ones to choose, your best bet is to consult a registered dietitian to determine your individual needs.
When we’re not eating appropriately or properly taking care of our bodies, imbalances in electrolytes can occur. Electrolyte imbalances take place when there is either too much or too little of an electrolyte in the body.
Imbalances are commonly caused by excessive fluid losses from diarrhea, vomiting or sweating. Certain disease states involving the kidneys, poor diet and disordered eating habits can cause imbalances as well.
So how do we know if our electrolyte levels are where they should be? First and foremost, electrolyte imbalances can be very serious and sometimes even life-threatening. Make sure you’re going in for your yearly checkups with your PCP. Your doctor will be able to test your major electrolyte levels and will notice any other issues that may suggest an electrolyte imbalance.
You can also keep an eye out for some of the most common symptoms of electrolyte imbalances:
- Fatigue & lethargy
- Muscle spasms
- Irregular heartbeat
- Nausea & vomiting
- Muscle cramping
- Diarrhea & constipation
- Irritability (9)
The bottom line is electrolytes are a big part of our regular diet. You’re getting a whole lot more of them than you think, so make sure you really need those sports drinks or tablets before integrating them into your daily routine.
Electrolytes are so important for everyone, not just athletes. Maintain a well-rounded diet comprised of whole foods and plenty of water, and chances are you’ll be good to go.
I would love to hear about your experience with electrolytes – have you previously been told that you needed to consume sports drinks and supplements whenever you exercised? Or did you already know that this was usually unnecessary?
I’m sure someone else reading this article would love to hear about your experience as well! As always, you can connect with us on Instagram via @nutritionstrippederica, @nutritionstripped, #nutritionstripped and #nswellnesscoaching.