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Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge. They’re vital for health and survival. Electrolytes spark cell function throughout the body.

They support hydration and help the body produce energy. They’re also responsible for stimulating muscle contractions, including those that keep your heart beating.

Prepared foods contain some types of electrolytes. So do certain whole foods, such as spinach, turkey, and oranges.

Foods with electrolytes include:

  • spinach
  • kale
  • avocados
  • broccoli
  • potatoes
  • beans
  • almonds
  • peanuts
  • soybeans
  • tofu
  • strawberries
  • watermelon
  • oranges
  • bananas
  • tomatoes
  • milk
  • buttermilk
  • yogurt
  • fish, such as flounder
  • turkey
  • chicken
  • veal
  • raisins
  • olives
  • canned foods, such as soups and vegetables
Food vs. drink

The amount of electrolytes you require on a daily basis varies and is based on several factors, including:

  • age
  • activity level
  • water consumption
  • climate

Most people get enough electrolytes from the daily foods and beverages they take in. In some instances, electrolyte beverages such as sports drinks may be a good way for you to quickly replace fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes that you lost during extreme activity.

Electrolytes leave the body through sweat and urine. If you sweat a lot, exercise in hot weather, or work out vigorously for more than an hour or two, you may benefit from drinking electrolyte beverages before, during, and after your workout.

People at risk for dehydration, such as those who have a high fever or diarrhea and vomiting, may also benefit from electrolyte beverages.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals. In order for your cells, muscles, and organs to work properly, you need both fluids and electrolytes. Electrolytes help regulate the balance of fluid in the body. Types of electrolytes are:

  • sodium
  • phosphate
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • chloride
  • bicarbonate

In addition to regulating fluids, electrolytes have many functions. These include:

  • transmitting nerve signals from the heart, muscles, and nerve cells to other cells
  • building new tissue
  • supporting blood clotting
  • keeping your heart beating by electrically stimulating muscle contractions
  • maintaining the blood’s pH level
  • regulating the fluid level in blood plasma
What is electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolytes need to exist in the body within a specific range. If levels become too high or low, an electrolyte imbalance can occur. An imbalance may result from:

  • Dehydration. A rapid loss of bodily fluids caused by illness, burns, or excessive sweating can cause electrolyte imbalances if they’re not replaced.
  • Kidney function. Certain conditions, such as chronic kidney disease or Addison’s disease, can cause high levels of potassium. This can lead to a potentially dangerous condition called hyperkalemia.
  • Other conditions. People with type 1 diabetes, older individuals, and those with eating disorders, such as bulimia, may also be prone to getting an electrolyte imbalance.
  • Medications. Certain medications may cause this condition to occur, including:
    • chemotherapy drugs
    • beta-blockers
    • laxatives
    • corticosteroids
    • diuretics

Symptoms

If you have an electrolyte imbalance, you may experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • muscle cramps, spasms, or twitching
  • muscle weakness
  • irregular or fast heartbeat
  • headache
  • extreme thirst
  • numbness
  • fatigue or lethargy
  • confusion or disorientation
  • change in blood pressure
  • seizure

Symptoms may also show up slowly depending on which electrolyte level is too high or too low. For example, too little calcium may eventually lead to weakening bones and osteoporosis.

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How to stay in balance

Several strategies can help keep your electrolytes in balance:

  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet which includes foods that contain electrolytes.
  • Drink plenty of water, but don’t overdo it. Drinking too much fluid can flush electrolytes out of your system.
  • Don’t overuse over-the-counter diuretics or take them for a prolonged period of time without your doctor’s approval.
  • Don’t overuse salt. Even though sodium is an electrolyte, eating too much can throw your system off balance.
  • Try to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise during the hottest times of day.
  • Don’t exercise indoors without air conditioning, especially if you start to sweat profusely.
  • Replenish yourself with fluids such as water or sports drinks after several hours of strenuous activity, or after very intense workouts of shorter duration.
  • Talk to your doctor about the medications you’re taking, and ask if any of them can be replaced if you’re noticing an imbalance. Make sure to ask about both prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
The bottom line

Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that help the body maintain optimal function. An electrolyte imbalance may occur for a wide range of reasons, and is often linked to dehydration or excessive sweating.

You can avoid electrolyte imbalance by eating a healthy diet and drinking enough water. If you’re an athlete, sports drinks may be a good way for you to quickly replenish your electrolyte levels.