Electrolytes are minerals—including sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium—that form an electrical charge when combined with fluids. In your body, electrolytes are essential for transmitting signals that help to maintain a balance of fluids, healthy muscle contraction, and normal function of the nervous system, which includes the brain.
A perfect diet rich in a variety of plant foods could theoretically supply sufficient amounts. But in the real world, electrolytes can fall short for several reasons
How Electrolytes Get Depleted
Sweating isn’t the only way electrolytes become depleted, but it’s a major one. Playing sports, doing intense workouts, working outdoors on a hot day, or simply being in a hot environment can rob your body of these crucial minerals. And you may not even realize that it’s happening.
In a hot climate that’s also very dry, sweat can evaporate so quickly that you don’t notice it. For athletes who train for long periods or run marathons, drinking too much water can actually be a hazard because it dilutes sodium in the blood—a condition called hyponatremia—causing fatigue, cramping, headaches, and nausea.
A keto diet is another electrolyte robber. For more than 50 years, it’s been known that fasting or significantly restricting carbohydrates triggers excretion of sodium and potassium and leads to electrolyte imbalance.
More recently, adherents of the keto diet have found that getting extra electrolytes from foods or supplements can reduce or eliminate “keto flu,” symptoms that typically appear during the first week or two of a keto diet and, in some cases, may persist without extra electrolytes.
Cancer treatment, kidney disease, and any illness that causes vomiting or diarrhea can also disrupt your electrolyte balance. Symptoms can include fatigue, muscle weakness, cramping, irregular heartbeat, numbness, tingling, and headaches.
Types of Electrolyte Supplements
Gatorade, the first American sports drink, was developed in 1965 to provide electrolytes and carbohydrates for the Gators, the University of Florida’s football team. But few people have the same nutritional requirements as college football players, and there are many supplements that contain little or no sugar, no artificial additives, and different electrolyte combinations.
While blood tests can detect electrolyte imbalances and doctors can determine individual needs in the context of medical treatment, no specific dosages or combinations of electrolytes have been determined by scientific studies or medical consensus. Ultimately, the only way to tell which electrolyte supplement will work best for you is a matter of trial and error.
Electrolytes come in liquids, powders, gels, and effervescent tablets that are mixed with water. Some contain only a few electrolytes, while others include more ingredients such as vitamin C and other nutrients. In addition, coconut water is a naturally rich source of potassium, with smaller amounts of other electrolyte minerals.
Did You Know?
Electrolyte supplements come in gels, powders, liquids—and effervescent tablets that can be mixed with water.
How to Know if You Need More Electrolytes
The minerals that act as electrolytes in your body are also essential for other reasons, such as calcium for healthy bones, potassium for healthy blood pressure, and magnesium for more than 300 enzyme reactions in the human body. Their role as electrolytes is another reason why we need them from our diets or supplements.
When the weather is heating up or you’re planning extra exertion, your normal levels of the electrolyte minerals will influence whether you need extra electrolyte supplements. If you have an adequate supply before facing a challenge from hot weather or intense activity, your body is more likely to maintain a balance.
Because they work together, some electrolyte functions overlap, as do some symptoms of a shortfall. When needed, an electrolyte formula can provide a combination of these key minerals.
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