What Do Electrolytes Do? We Investigate

what do electrolytes do


Dealing with unusual muscle aches, headaches, or nausea after a workout can instantly make you feel defeated and deflated. Feeling sick after a sweat session can also suck the fun out of trying a challenging new fitness class or pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. What do you do when you’ve been working hard to stay hydrated, eat nutritious meals, and exercise regularly—but you still feel awful?

We went to Diana Morgan, MS, the head of scientific & regulatory affairs at Care/of, for an answer. Morgan knows a few things about how the body stays in balance, and she clued us in how changing electrolyte levels could be to blame. We dug in deeper to learn more about this common culprit, its symptoms, and what to do when you think you’re suffering from an imbalance.

What Are Electrolytes?

You’ve likely seen sports drinks with snappy packaging that promise to deliver a powerful dose of electrolytes, or the natural minerals in your body that carry an electrical charge. Sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate are all electrolytes, and each one plays an important role in keeping your brain, heart, muscles, and nerves healthy. 

Electrolytes, which are found in blood, urine, and other bodily fluids, balance the amount of water in your body and regulate its pH level. They also move nutrients into your cells and waste out of your cells to keep you hydrated and nourished. Morgan explains, “Because electrolytes control fluid balance, they’re key for muscle contraction, energy generation, and almost every biochemical reaction in the body.” 

What Are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals in your body that have an electric charge and help moderate cell function.

How Do You Know If Your Electrolyte Levels Are Low?

Making sure your body maintains healthy electrolyte levels is key to having energy and feeling good, especially after an intense sweat session. Morgan shares, “An imbalance can occur when a person sweats so heavily that they lose a higher amount of sodium than the body can handle, along with other electrolytes like potassium, calcium, and magnesium.” Other lifestyle changes that affect your body’s water levels—like fasting or taking medicine—can produce the same kind of problem. The same goes for battling a bout of diarrhea or becoming dehydrated after vomiting.

Low electrolyte levels can cause a bunch of unpleasant symptoms, which range from headaches, dizziness, and nausea to an irregular heartbeat, exercise-associated muscle cramps, and extreme fatigue. In more severe cases, a person may experience hyponatremia, which has symptoms like vomiting, swollen hands and feet, restlessness, confusion, and disorientation. “Hyponatremia happens when lost sodium isn’t replaced,” Morgan explains. “Drinking water is essential, but it doesn’t replenish electrolytes after extreme activity or sickness.”

How to Replenish Your Electrolytes

Knowing what an electrolyte imbalance feels like and when it’s most likely to happen to you is the first step toward staying healthy. Keeping yourself well hydrated is also key; experts advise taking in about as much water as you lose to maintain balance. Whether you’ve just crushed a new exercise class or haven’t been feeling so hot, adding a supplement to your water can help replenish key minerals more quickly and effectively. “I always recommend an electrolyte supplement that can be mixed with water,” Morgan says. “Look for one without synthetic colors or added sugar.”

And what about popular sports drinks? Studies show that they’re often full of refined sugars and artificial sweeteners, making them a poor choice for replenishing your electrolytes to keep your bod in balance. Instead, reach for water-rich and nutrient-dense food and drink to feel better fast.

Which Foods and Beverages Have High Electrolyte Content?

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High potassium makes bananas a sweet treat that do double duty when it comes to replenishing your electrolytes. “One medium banana contains 422 mg of potassium, which is almost 10% of your daily requirement,” Morgan notes. 

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Avocados are loaded with potassium—one medium fruit has about twice as much as a banana! Add them to a smoothie, sandwich, or salad for an instant boost.

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Leafy Green Vegetables

Kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and seaweed all pack a powerful punch. “These vegetables are good for us in so many ways,” Morgan reminds. “They’re excellent sources of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.”

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Watermelon is a water-rich fruit that has high contents of potassium, sodium, and phosphorus. Snack on a few slices, or blend frozen watermelon into a post-workout slushy.

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Lemons, alongside other citrus fruits, have a high calcium and potassium content. Squeeze them into a glass of warm water with a pinch of salt for a replenishing DIY drink.

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Coconut Water

Morgan tells us that coconut water is an ideal drink when you need to replenish. “One 8 oz. serving provides about 410 mg of potassium, 65 mg of sodium, 40 mg of calcium, and 17 mg of magnesium.”

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One glass of milk has a whopping 300 mg of calcium, 400 mg of potassium, and 120 mg of sodium, making it a good go-to for those of us who haven’t ditched dairy.

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