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Electrolytes – Finding the Balance

If you’ve ever sipped from a bottle of Smartwater® or Gatorade, you’re likely aware of electrolytes and their connection to hydration. Perhaps you even know you need to replenish them after a bout of diarrhea or vomiting—or when you have a hangover. So, while you know they’re important, you may not realize exactly how—or what they are.

What ARE Electrolytes?

In the nutrition world, the term electrolytes encompasses a number of specific minerals found in your blood, sweat, and urine, that when dissolved in said fluid, create positive or negative ions that help your body perform essential functions to keep you alive. Calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and bicarbonate are all electrolytes found in the human body and are all essential in keeping the metabolic ship sailing smoothly.

What do they do in the body?

While electrolytes may be most commonly known for their hydrating power, that’s really just one piece of the bigger picture. Electrolytes are also responsible for transmitting nerve signals to cells in the body; muscle function, including heartbeat; controlling fluid balance in cells through osmosis, supporting blood clotting, growing new tissue, and maintaining healthy internal pH levels.

Risks and Signs of Electrolyte Imbalances

The best way to maintain proper electrolyte balance is through a healthy diet. However, electrolyte imbalances—that is, having too few or too many of one or more types—can happen, and can have a negative effect on your health. The most common cause of electrolyte imbalance stems from dehydration, wherein something such as hot weather, diarrhea, or vomiting depletes your levels. Other risk factors for imbalance include:

· Poor diet

· Eating and substance use disorders

· Cardiovascular, kidney, or liver disease

· Severe burns

· Medications including antibiotics, chemotherapy, corticosteroids, diuretics, or laxatives

While a mild imbalance is likely to be symptom-free and will fly under the radar, more severe imbalances can manifest in a number of different ways, including irregular heartbeat, fatigue, confusion, muscle weakness, cramping or convulsions; numbness or tingling, headache, constipation, excessive thirst, and loss of appetite.

Eat Your Electrolytes, Don’t Just Drink Them

To maintain healthy electrolyte levels, look to food first—not sports drinks. Veggies and fruits are primary sources, though meat, dairy, nuts, and seeds are also rich in electrolytes. While most foods contain more than one type of electrolyte, some foods are richer sources than others.

Here are some top choices categorized by nutrient:

CALCIUM: High-quality dairy (if tolerated); dark leafy greens including spinach and kale, almonds, canned sardines and sockeye salmon, white beans, and blackstrap molasses.

CHLORIDE: Tomatoes, celery, lettuce, olives, seaweed, and table salt.

MAGNESIUM: Avocados, watermelon, spinach, Swiss chard, black beans, figs, almonds, and dark chocolate.

PHOSPHOROUS: Pastured red meat and poultry, seafood, high-quality dairy, Brazil nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and legumes.

POTASSIUM: Bananas, beets, watermelon, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, spinach, and dried fruit.

When it comes to SODIUM, the average American is getting way more than the daily recommended amount, which is a single teaspoon. However, in addition to table salt, foods such as pickles, olives, cottage cheese, canned fish, and fermented foods, like sauerkraut or kimchi, are healthier sources of sodium.

Finally, BICARBONATE, which is often paired with sodium or potassium, is naturally produced in the body, so sourcing it through diet is unnecessary.

As far as beverages go, skip the sugary, brightly colored sports drinks and sip on unsweetened coconut water instead. Coconut water is a natural electrolyte powerhouse as it contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium!

Concerned About Your Levels?

Generally, many of us get enough electrolytes through diet. However, if we eat poorly (i.e., processed food, refined carbohydrates, added sugar, etc.), suffer from illness either chronic or acute, or frequently engage in strenuous exercise, it may be worth speaking to your healthcare professional and getting your levels checked.

If you are looking for better ways to fuel your body, contact me. Together, we can troubleshoot your diet so that you’re giving your body all the nutrients—including electrolytes—that it needs to feel and look its best.

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