You rely on your immune system every day to protect you from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that can cause you to get sick. Your immune system consists of several layers of protection. Some types of immune cells address immediate threats, and other types of cells learn patterns of pathogens to keep you safe far into the future.
Your immune system is deeply integrated with the other systems of your body. The health of your digestion, your muscles, and your arteries have a direct impact on how well your immune system functions. Your immunity depends on a complex network of cells, organs, and signals.
In turn, these routes need specific nutrients to function normally. Here’s where electrolytes come into play.
Your immune system is influenced in direct and indirect ways by electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. In addition to preventing infections and reducing the severity of the immune response, they are also useful in combating cancer.
Getting enough electrolytes is important regardless of your health status. Keeping an eye out for electrolyte deficiencies is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system.
Let’s learn about the role of electrolytes in immunity and what happens to fluid requirements during an infection.
Immune System 101
Your immune system works like a security system, vigilantly protecting you at all times from threats that come from outside and inside your body. It’s constantly on the lookout for pathogens and ready to take action against them when necessary.
Sensor proteins circulate in your bloodstream that detect disease-causing agents. These substances trigger an immune response when they detect a pathogen. This is the Innate Immune Response.
The innate immune response is the body's first line of defense against an infection, and it dispatches a swarm of immune cells to the site of the problem. Among these cells, we find:
- Interferons, cytokines, and other signaling molecules
- Macrophages and natural killer cells are two types of white blood cells.
- Inflammation that manifests in other ways
Surprised to see inflammation on this list? Your body produces inflammation as part of the immune response to control infection and disease. There are different types of inflammation. Acute inflammation is when tissues swell up in response to an immediate threat, like cutting your finger or catching a cold. After the tissues are healed or you are no longer ill, the inflammation resolves. Chronic inflammation occurs when the inflammation doesn’t resolve, and this can be due to quite a lot of things in our modern world, from diet decisions to sedentary habits to your immune system not being able to clear an infection. Chronic inflammation is a leading contributor to the diseases of aging and other chronic conditions, like arthritis and autoimmunity.
Innate immune responses can sometimes be sufficient to completely eradicate the offending pathogen. Unfortunately, in many cases the innate immune system isn’t enough to combat the infection, so it’s time to call in backup.
The second line of defense in your immune is the Adaptive Immune System. It consists of T cells, antibodies, and other white blood cells, which target the specific offending pathogen. The development of antiviral antibodies in the form of IGG and IGA by white blood cells is a lengthy process, taking anywhere from 3-10 days. This is why it’s called the adaptive immune response: it takes time to learn and adapt to the pathogen so the specific antibodies can be created in the quantity your body needs to fight off disease.
This is also why vaccines don't provide instant immunity. Your adaptive immune system, which takes weeks to mobilize, is where vaccines interface with your body.
Where do electrolytes fit in your immune response?
We’re going to discuss how three specific electrolytes support an optimal immune response, and why getting these electrolytes is the key to staying healthy even when everyone around you is getting sick.
Sodium is the primary electrolyte mineral in our bodies. We need it in the greatest quantities because it’s used in so many different ways. One way your body uses sodium is to directly inhibit pathogenic growth. Yes, salt can kill germs that make you sick!
Studies in rats have shown that sodium is protective against both parasites and cancer. While rats are not humans, there is sufficient overlap with human biochemistry and metabolic pathways that we can surmise that salt would be protective in humans as well.
While you can think of sodium as protective against infection, it’s important to remember that getting too little sodium can negatively impact your immune response.
Low sodium levels, known as hyponatremia, have been linked to an increase in cancer patients' risk of death. That's why giving patients extra salt (usually in the form of intravenous saline) is such a cornerstone of contemporary cancer care.
Potassium balances the activating qualities of sodium, so these two minerals must be consumed in balance to maintain optimal health and immunity. They work in tandem to control heart rate, nerve impulses, and the immune system.
Potassium controls the electrical potential difference between the inside and outside of a cell, known as the membrane potential. The membrane potential not only provides energy for the cell to function (like a battery), but also facilitates communication between cells. In turn, these signals aid in regulating immune response.
Potassium modulates the effect that sodium has on the body's innate immune system. Where sodium stimulates an immune response, potassium calms an overactive immune system. An overactive immune response can cause chronic inflammation and can play a role in autoimmune conditions. Because of this, it’s important to pair sodium with potassium, and not simply consume more salt.
Increased potassium intake protects against cardiovascular disease, and this benefit may be due, in part, to a reduction in inflammation. This may also help to clarify why people with low potassium levels are more likely to develop inflammatory diseases.
This essential mineral is used in over 300 enzymatic reactions in every cell in your body, and most of us aren’t getting nearly enough. Magnesium deficiency is associated with a weakened immune system, so this mineral plays an important role in overall health.
Magnesium deficiency can have a number of effects on the immune system. If you have a low intake of magnesium, your body is less able to resolve inflammation, and you may be at greater risk for heart disease. Your tissues are less able to remove and replace worn out cells, and your tissues show the effects of age faster, literally making you feel older.
A reduction in thymus size occurs when your diet is too low in magnesium. Your thymus is an organ found in the upper chest. The growth of T cells is promoted, and adaptive immunity is helped by this. Thymus atrophy is a normal part of aging, but magnesium deficiency appears to hasten this process.
Electrolyte Needs While Ill
Medical professionals pay close attention to electrolyte balance in patients who are suffering from a critical illness. Fighting off infection uses up electrolyte stores, and as you’re probably well aware, you don’t feel like eating the healthiest foods when you’re sick, if you feel like eating anything at all.
Since you burn through your electrolytes at an accelerated rate when you’re sick, prepare yourself with strategies to rehydrate with electrolytes even when you don’t feel like it. Electrolyte Recovery Plus in the Lemonade flavor is an excellent option to get all of the electrolytes you need, not just the 3 or 4 found in sports drinks. The lemonade flavor is especially good for those who are ill because it’s one of the best flavors to drink either cold or heated up. If you want a nice hot drink to comfort you, try a mug of hot tea with electrolytes for a hydrating infusion that will help you feel better faster.
Taheri, M., Bahrami, A., Habibi, P., & Nouri, F. (2021). A review on the serum electrolytes and trace elements role in the pathophysiology of covid-19. Biological Trace Element Research, 199(7), 2475–2481. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12011-020-02377-4