Medically Reviewed by Dr. Bryan Seigel D.C., P.L.C.
Electrolytes are essential minerals that serve a wide range of functions in the body. These minerals are needed in larger amounts than other nutrients since they are used for so many metabolic processes. From the liver to the kidneys to the skin to the brain, every organ uses electrolytes. Being a little low on electrolytes will keep you from feeling energetic and thinking clearly, and often is the culprit in the dreaded keto flu, complete with raging headache and muscle weakness. We’re going to talk about what electrolytes are, what they do, and how to replenish your electrolytes.
Why are electrolytes so important?
These minerals balance the fluid levels in the body, both inside and outside of the cell. They circulate in the bloodstream and are named “electrolytes” because they can conduct electricity. They’re needed to control nerve impulses and muscle contractions. Electrolytes also maintain the acid/base balance in blood and other fluids, contrary to the hype that drinking lemon juice or vinegar will make you more “alkaline.” Your body is very good at this all on it’s own, it just needs the electrolyte minerals to do it. (Nothing against lemon juice or vinegar, they’re just not doing anything to balance your pH.)
Sodium, what we normally consume as salt, is the primary one, and the one you’ll notice fastest if you aren’t getting enough. Too little salt is more of a concern than too much, especially on the keto diet. Deficiency leads to extreme fatigue and brain fog. Whenever you’re feeling this way, first ask yourself, how much salt have you had? Try adding a little extra salt to your meals to ensure that you get enough. Potassium works with sodium to balance fluid levels. This is primarily done through the kidneys, but every cell in your body has sodium/potassium pumps embedded in their membranes to ensure fluids move in and out of the cell as needed.
Magnesium and calcium similarly work as a pair. Calcium is notable for signaling muscles to contract, while magnesium releases the contraction. This is one of the reasons magnesium is recommended to help with sleep, since it helps your muscles to relax and unwind. The other electrolyte minerals are chloride (often found paired with sodium), phosphate, and bicarbonate. Phosphate is necessary for bone integrity, which is especially important for athletes and older adults. Bicarbonate is usually produced in the body but can also be found in many vegetables, and is the real supporting player in balancing your body’s pH.
We lose electrolytes all the time through normal daily activities, since they’re used up through cellular respiration. Training uses up electrolytes faster, and drinking large amounts of fluid forces them out through excretion. Hot weather increases the need for electrolytes too, since they are lost in sweat. Drinking alcohol pulls electrolytes out too, so moderate your alcohol intake.
What does it feel like to have an electrolyte imbalance?
A mild electrolyte imbalance will have you feeling “meh.” You probably wouldn’t be able to pin down any giant symptoms, but you wouldn’t be at the top of your game. Brain fog, a little moodiness, and low energy are common when you’re a little low on electrolytes.
As you further deplete your mineral stores, you can expect headaches and shakiness, maybe even feeling like you might pass out. Some people get heart palpitations, which can be pretty scary. You’ll also likely experience cramps, often in the legs and feet, and you might feel unusually cold.
A surprising cause of low electrolytes is too much plain water. We need a lot of it to function well, but some people go too far. Excess water intake dilutes your blood and cellular fluids, and washes out all those electrolytes that have important functions. Remember that it’s a balance, and even good and necessary things can be overdone. Aim for around 64oz of plain water, and a glass or two of an electrolyte drink each day. Your water needs will vary depending on your mass, activity level, and even the weather, so don’t get too attached to a specific number. Listen to your body.
How to replenish your electrolytes?
The easiest way to do this is with an electrolyte drink mix. Since you already drink a few glasses of water per day (and if you don’t, consider this your reminder), use one of those glasses as your electrolyte replacement for the day. This is best done first thing in the morning so you’re filled up for the rest of the day. If you’re especially active or sweating a lot, have a second glass of electrolytes throughout the day to keep feeling great.
Choosing mineral rich foods will help to maximize your electrolyte intake. Foods like bone broth and dark leafy vegetables are high in electrolytes, as well as avocadoes, olives, and almonds. It’s difficult to get all the electrolytes you need from food, however, since modern agricultural practices have shifted the balance of nutrients in the soil. If the minerals aren’t in the dirt, the plant can’t take them up, making today’s food less rich in nutrients than it would have been 100 years ago. Fortunately, many small farms are adopting sustainable farming practices that are shifting the balance back to nutrient rich soils, so if you have access to high quality produce, take advantage of it.
Here’s the most basic and easy to forget tip to increase your electrolytes: salt your food! Salt is the primary electrolyte and is often the one responsible for the symptoms of an imbalance. Since you’re likely to be eating fewer processed foods on keto, you’re also missing the sodium that they came packaged with. (That’s not the best source of sodium anyway.) Jeff Volek, PhD, and Stephen Phinnney, MD, PhD, who run the Virta health clinic, recommend between 5 and 8 grams of sodium per day, which is about 3-4 teaspoons of salt. So, don’t be shy salting your foods to taste.
What have we learned?
Electrolyte drinks are one of the best keto diet supplements you’ll want to consider adding to your day. Since electrolytes are vital for so many different reactions in your body, it’s important to guard against excessive electrolyte loss. We lose electrolytes normally, and we now know how to replenish your electrolytes to stay healthy and feeling our best. Fresh vegetables, bone broth, and other foods are ways we can get more electrolytes in our diet, and an electrolyte drink mix will make sure you’re getting enough.