Replenishing Your Electrolytes Without Getting Too Many
Though electrolytes are featured prominently in ads for sports drinks as a way to help your body recover after working out, over-consuming them won’t make you any healthier. In fact, getting too many electrolytes can be as bad as not getting enough. So, what exactly are these mysterious minerals, and how do you make sure you have the right balance of electrolytes in your system?
What Electrolytes Are and What Electrolytes Do
Among the essential minerals that your body needs is a group called electrolytes. Found in your tissues, blood, urine, and other body fluids, electrolytes are distinguished from other minerals by the electrical charge they have when dissolved in water (body fluids). Your body uses that electrical charge to carry nerve impulses from one cell to another, make your muscles contract, and keep your body fluids balanced, among other vital functions. On their own, electrolytes like sodium, chloride, calcium, potassium, phosphate, and magnesium each serve different critical purposes too, from regulating your heart and blood pressure to making it possible for you to digest food.
Your body needs just the right amount of these electrolytes in its system to work properly. When you’re dehydrated, your body is low on both fluids and electrolytes and you need to replenish both to maintain the right balance of electrolytes in your system so your body can function properly.
The key here is balance: you must replenish the electrolytes that you lose through dehydration, but getting too many electrolytes in your system can be just as risky for your health as not getting enough. And, because each electrolyte serves a different purpose in the body, you need the right balance of each electrolyte individually.
How Your Body Gets Electrolytes
The human body can’t produce electrolytes itself, and relies on natural food and water sources to replenish these vital minerals. Electrolytes can become depleted if you don’t drink enough water, if you sweat too much, or if you lose them with vomiting or diarrhea and don’t rehydrate. When you’re low on electrolytes, your body has a harder time sending signals from your brain to your body, causing symptoms like muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches, and even irregular heartbeat.
In theory, getting enough electrolytes is simple: a healthy diet loaded with mineral-rich foods and drinking enough water is usually all you need for your electrolyte intake. However, the modern lifestyle tends to complicate the equation, since our diets make it hard to get enough of some electrolytes while making it easy to get too much of others, especially sodium.
It’s hard for most Americans to get enough of some electrolytes like magnesium or potassium through food sources alone, partially due to the prevalence of processed foods in our diets. For this reason, more and more people turn to supplements to get their recommended daily allowance of magnesium and potassium—which, in turn, makes it easy to get too many of these electrolytes in your system.
Meanwhile, packaged foods give us more than enough of sodium and chloride, electrolytes that you know in combination as table salt. Drinking sports drinks without being dehydrated from intense exercise or illness is also an easy way to over-consume electrolytes like sodium.
What Happens if You Get Too Many Electrolytes
If you stick to natural food sources of electrolytes, with the exception of sodium, it’s hard to take in too many electrolytes. But replenishing electrolytes faster than you lose them will make electrolyte levels in your body too high. Drinking sports drinks without being dehydrated, overdoing it on the salt content in your food, or taking in too many electrolytes as supplements are all ways you can get too many electrolytes.
The effects depend on the specific electrolyte. Too much potassium can affect your heart beat, causing abnormal heart rhythms or, in extreme cases, causing it to stop beating. Dehydration causes your sodium levels to be too high, and your body helpfully signals that you have too much sodium in your system by getting thirsty. Ignore this cry for help, and symptoms of too much sodium then range from confusion, cramps, twitching, seizures, coma, or even death.
Drinking too much water in general can also cause your electrolyte levels to be too high, causing symptoms like cramps, headaches, and a reduced ability to think clearly.
How to Know if You Need More Electrolytes
Know the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance, and if you have reason to think you aren’t getting enough electrolytes, talk to your doctor about running a blood test to measure your electrolyte levels. Some medications put you at higher risk of over-consuming or under-consuming electrolytes, which is why you should always talk to a doctor before taking supplements.
Maintain Electrolyte Balance by Eating Healthy and Staying Hydrated
The best way to make sure you’re getting the right balance of electrolytes is to drink plenty of water, watch your salt intake, avoid processed foods, and eat plenty of leafy greens and whole grains. Try to stick to magnesium-rich foods and natural food sources of potassium for these harder-to-get minerals, and always talk to your doctor before starting supplements. At the same time, watch your sodium intake to make sure you’re sticking to the amount of salt you need daily.
And remember to drink enough water! When the amount of water in your body changes, your electrolyte levels do too, so it’s important to drink as much water as you lose. Factors that can upset your water balance, and therefore your electrolyte levels too, include certain medications, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and liver or kidney problems.
The Path to Balanced Electrolyte Levels:
- Keep an eye on your sodium intake
- Drink water when you’re thirsty
- Save sports drinks for intensive exercise
- Eat mineral-rich foods and avoid processed foods
- Talk to your doctor before taking supplements
- Hydrate before and after exercise
For more health-related topics, tips, and recipes, follow our Hospitality Health ER blog. We’ve covered other aspects of electrolytes in “How Much Salt Can You Have Daily?” and “The Top Five Ways Getting Enough Magnesium Can Improve Your Day.” For giveaways, updates, and COVID-19 tips, like us on Facebook and Instagram.