Why electrolytes are important — and when you may need them the most
- Electrolytes are important because they help balance fluids in your body.
- Another important function of electrolytes is conducting nerve impulses and muscle contractions that keep organs like your heart working.
- It's important to drink or eat electrolytes after you finish a workout or if you are sick and vomiting.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD,
nutritionand wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
When it comes to sports nutrition, electrolytes create quite the buzz. But, electrolytes play an important role in
Here's what you need to know about the major health benefits and best sources of electrolytes, and how to make sure you're getting enough of them.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential
You can get electrolytes by eating a varied diet of healthy foods like dairy products, fruits, and veggies.
According to Amy Goodson, MS, a registered dietitian and consultant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, common electrolytes include:
|Electrolyte||Average recommended daily intake (mg)|
|Sodium||Less than 2,300|
What do electrolytes do?
"Oftentimes, people really underestimate how important electrolytes are because they don't know what they do," says Goodson. Here are a few functions of electrolytes and why they are so important.
- Balance fluids in your body: Electrolyte levels determine the amount of water in your cells. When the ratio of water to electrolytes is stable, your cells are properly hydrated. If you are dehydrated, there are more electrolytes in cells than water. Conversely, if you become overhydrated, the water in your cells will exceed the number of electrolytes. This can be offset by eating foods that are in high electrolytes.
- Conduct nerve impulses and stimulate muscle contractions: Because electrolytes have an electrical charge, they carry electrical impulses that trigger nerve responses and muscle contractions. These actions keep organs and muscles like your brain and heart working properly.
- Regulate the body's pH levels: Electrolytes keep your blood at a stable and healthy pH. Healthy human blood is slightly alkaline and has a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. If electrolyte levels are imbalanced, these pH levels will fluctuate, causing a range of health issues including metabolic acidosis or alkalosis.
What is an electrolyte imbalance?
Electrolyte imbalances occur when the ratio of electrolytes to water in your body changes.
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heart rate
If you are rapidly losing or consuming fluids and are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your doctor, as long-term consequences of electrolyte imbalance include bone and nervous system disorders.
Your doctor can diagnose an electrolyte imbalance by reviewing a history of your symptoms, conducting a physical examination, and ordering blood and urine tests. Based on these results, your doctor may also suggest that you take an electrocardiogram (EKG) test, which examines the electrical activity of your heart as an electrolyte imbalance impairs with heart functioning.
What causes an electrolyte imbalance?
Electrolyte imbalances occur when you are either dehydrated or overhydrated.
When you are dehydrated, your body loses more water than it does electrolytes. This causes a spike in your bloodstream's electrolyte concentration.
Goodson says there are three main reasons that people can experience electrolyte imbalances from losing too much fluid:
- Excessive sweating
The average exerciser isn't at risk of becoming dehydrated, as there is enough water and electrolytes stored in the body for about one hour of vigorous exercise. However, after that, you should consume fluids and electrolytes with a sports drink.
Those exercising or working outside in the heat for multiple hours should be extra diligent about staying hydrated and fueling their body properly.
Goodson says some signs that may indicate you are dehydrated include:
- Dark-colored urine or very little urine
- Dizziness or tingling
Although drinking water is important for your health, too much water can cause overhydration. This will cause an electrolyte imbalance. Overhydration is most common in athletes and those with kidney disorders.
"We often see runners getting into problems with [overhydration] if they are just taking in water during their workout," says Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition.
- Cloudy thinking
- Spasms or cramps
- Clear urine
Rare but severe symptoms of overhydration can include mental confusion, seizures, and unconsciousness — which can sometimes lead to a coma. "Overhydrating can have really serious consequences, and in extreme instances, your brain can even start to swell," Clark says.
To treat overhydration, limit your consumption of fluids for at least several days.
It's important to maintain a healthy balance of electrolytes so that your body can function normally. Unless you are sick or exercising for multiple hours, eating a varied diet and staying hydrated will keep your levels normal.
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