Medically Reviewed by Dr. Bryan Seigel D.C., P.L.C.
You know about electrolytes, right? How they’re vital for keeping your cells hydrated and making sure your muscles and brain are as strong and fast as they can be. You know they’re important for energy levels, and for feeling your best, and how they’re essential for avoiding the dreaded keto flu. But, just because you know you need them doesn’t mean you know how to maximize your electrolyte intake. Today we’re going to talk about all the ways you use up and excrete electrolytes, and how you can ensure you’re replenishing them enough every day.
How are electrolytes depleted?
The reason we have to be mindful about electrolyte intake is because so many processes in the body depend on them, and they get excreted through liquid and solid waste, and especially in sweat. Plus, they get used up in various metabolic processes. Some of the ways we burn through electrolytes include:
- Exercise – The harder the workout, the more electrolyte minerals you go through. This is especially true if it’s a long or intense workout, or if you’re working out in the heat. The more you sweat, the more electrolytes you lose. Plus, your muscles and nerves are using your electrolyte stores to actually do the workout!
- Drinking excess water – That’s right, there is such a thing as drinking too much water, and by this we’re talking about plain water. Since water doesn’t contain electrolyte minerals, it dilutes the fluid of your body, including your bloodstream. Electrolytes stay in circulation to get to the tissues that need them, and if the blood is diluted too much, you’ll start to feel symptoms of electrolyte imbalance.
- Consuming too much salt – Salt is great! But, most of the salt in modern diets comes from processed foods, and much of it we don’t even taste. It’s often paired with chloride, which is another electrolyte mineral. The caution here is that, while salt is an essential electrolyte mineral, it must be balanced with the others, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
- Digestive complications – There’s no nice way to say it. Diarrhea and vomiting cause electrolyte loss because the body is purging toxins and using a lot of its own fluid resources to do it. The fluids in the body keep electrolytes in suspension so they can be used by our cells, but when large amounts of fluid are lost, those electrolytes get lost too.
- Certain medications – Modern medicine has provided life-saving therapies for a variety of conditions. However, some of these compounds can cause the loss of fluids and of electrolytes. The most common ones to cause electrolyte imbalance are diuretics, laxatives, and steroids.
What does an electrolyte imbalance feel like?
When we talk about an electrolyte imbalance, we’re broadly talking about all of the major electrolyte minerals, which are sodium, potassium, and magnesium, and to a lesser extent chloride and phosphate. Often, a mild electrolyte imbalance will make you feel like you aren’t quite yourself, but you can’t pin down anything that doesn’t feel right. You might feel worn down, have a headache, and not have much energy. You also might have trouble thinking, like your brain is in a jar of molasses, and you might feel irritated at little things more easily. Taking electrolytes when you have a mild imbalance will have you feeling better in about an hour
If you have a moderate electrolyte imbalance, you can expect headaches, lethargy, sleep problems, muscle cramps, and difficulty with digestion. You may also be craving salty things, since sodium is the easiest electrolyte mineral to associate with a taste. Moderate electrolyte imbalances can ruin your day due to the level of fatigue involved, and make it impossible to do a workout. You might have cramps or muscle weakness, as well as mood swings. Many times a person with a moderate electrolyte imbalance is also suffering some level of dehydration, even if they are drinking a lot of water, because that water can’t enter cells. Electrolytes are like a key to the locks in cell membranes. Taking electrolytes with a moderate imbalance will have you feeling somewhat better in a couple of hours, and repeated doses will have you feeling great by the next day.
A severe electrolyte imbalance is rare, but it has been known to happen in some extreme cases. With a severe electrolyte imbalance, you would experience much scarier symptoms such as an irregular heart rate, confusion and dizziness, convulsions, loss of sensation, and extreme lethargy. Those with extreme electrolyte imbalances must be seen by a healthcare professional for assessment and appropriate treatment.
How can you keep electrolyte levels up?
For everyone, regardless of how often you may or may not work out, the best thing you can do is have a glass of an electrolyte drink mix first thing in the morning. Yes, even before coffee. (DO NOT mix electrolytes with your coffee! You can try it if you like drinking things that are horrible, but remember that if you choose this experiment, you are warned.) Having electrolytes first thing in the morning replenishes reserves that were lost overnight, and you’re starting your day with an optimal level of electrolytes and hydration. Have your coffee after.
Electrolytes are a perfect pre-workout drink! You’ll burn through them or sweat them out whether you’re on the trail or in the gym, so give yourself the easy advantage by loading up your electrolytes before you even start. Not only will you not have to suffer electrolyte loss, but you’ll likely get a little boost in your performance, too. You may find you have the energy and the power to go faster or lift heavier, and you won’t feel as worn out at the end.
It’s also a great idea to have a glass of electrolytes at the end of the day before bed. Even if you haven’t had a formal workout, we use electrolytes throughout each day, so by the evening your stores have been at least partially depleted. This is especially true for magnesium and potassium, which are necessary for muscle relaxation and shifting your brain into a state that’s ready for sleep. Many people experience muscle cramps in the night, and this is most often caused by insufficient electrolytes. Many people report waking up feeling more refreshed when they have electrolytes before bed.
Pro tip! If you’ve had alcoholic drinks, it’s a wise idea to have at least one electrolyte drink before hitting the hay, even if you feel like falling asleep immediately. Alcohol dehydrates your body and causes electrolyte loss. You may have experienced the effects of this complicated hormone cascade in the form of having to use the bathroom multiple times after you have a drink. If you want to wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed, make sure to top up your electrolytes so you avoid the potential hangover.
Electrolytes are easy to take, too! Mixes today have the perfect ratio of all of the electrolyte minerals so you don’t have to buy a bunch of ingredients and guess how much you need. Even better, they taste good! Pick an electrolyte flavor that you enjoy and stick with it, or get a variety so you don’t get bored. The best mixes will be sweetened naturally with no sugar, and avoid artificial colors and fillers. Just scoop, stir, and drink!
Can you keep electrolyte levels up just with food?
Our ancestors had the great advantage of eating plants and animals that were chock full of nutrients, including the electrolyte minerals. Nothing was processed, so their diet was all whole foods. They got their electrolytes from a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, and even minerals in their water. Today, our foods are more processed, and both plants and animals have fewer of the minerals and other nutrients we need. Plus, as our science improves, we learn more about not just what’s good enough to survive, but what’s optimal to thrive and be our best selves. Part of that is optimizing electrolyte levels so we have the vital energy we need to dominate in the gym or the Zoom meeting.
What’s the moral of the story?
Electrolyte levels are important to stay healthy and feel our best. We lose electrolytes as we put effort into our lives, from simply having a day of work and errands to playing extreme sports. Electrolyte imbalances can show up in a variety of ways, and none of them feel good. It’s best to maintain optimal electrolyte levels with a daily strategy that incorporates them when you need them. Electrolytes can be taken at any point in the day, and taking them in the morning, in the evening, and before workouts will give you the best results. The important part is to take them every single day to feel your best.