A person outside drinking a blue electrolyte drink.

The Importance and Role of Electrolytes

What Do Electrolytes Do?

Electrolytes are essential minerals that play an important role in the functioning of our bodies. But what do electrolytes do? They carry a slight electrical charge and conduct electricity within the body when dissolved in body fluids. You've likely seen them mentioned on sports drinks or rehydration therapies.

Electrolytes occur naturally in our bodies within the blood, urine and sweat. They can also be present in the foods and drinks we consume. Therefore, eating the right balance of foods can help you to balance your electrolyte levels. Common electrolytes include potassium, sodium, chloride and calcium. But what exactly do electrolytes do for us, and why do we need them? Let’s find out.

How Do Electrolytes Help Your Body?

Electrolytes carry out many roles within the body and are essential for keeping our cells and organs working effectively. Many processes in the body require the electrical signals that electrolytes provide.

The roles of electrolytes include:

  • Regulating the balance of fluid within the body.
  • Maintaining the pH level of the blood.
  • Regulating muscle contractions, including the beating of the heart.
  • Regulating the transmission of nerve signals.
  • Helping with tissue regeneration and growth.
  • Assisting with blood clotting.
  • Helping to keep the body hydrated.
  • Facilitating the production of energy.
  • Maintaining a healthy blood pressure.
  • Transporting nutrients to cells and removing waste.

What is a Healthy Level of Electrolytes?

Your electrolyte levels must stay within a very specific range to be in optimal health, and your body works hard to maintain this. Minor imbalances in electrolyte levels can leave you experiencing dehydration signs, including:

  • Feelings of thirst.
  • Dry tongue and lips.
  • Headaches.
  • Dizziness.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Nausea.
  • Fatigue.

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Some people also notice muscle spasms and cramping when their electrolyte levels are imbalanced. If your levels significantly deviate from their optimal range, becoming either too high or too low, serious complications can occur, including seizures, coma and cardiac arrest.

You could be at risk of an electrolyte imbalance if you have:

  • Been vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • A fever.
  • Carried out an intense workout.
  • Not been eating or drinking sufficiently.
  • Sweating excessively.

Some medications, such as laxatives, diuretics and steroids, may also lower electrolyte levels.
Here are the normal ranges for some key electrolytes:

  • Potassium: normal range for an adult is 3.5 to 5.0 mmol/L.
  • Magnesium: normal range for an adult is 1.6 to 2.4 mg/dL.
  • Sodium: normal range for males is 135 to 146 mmol/L and normal range for females is 132 to 148 mmol/L.

People commonly experience an imbalance of sodium or potassium.

How Do You Know If You Need More Electrolytes?

Your doctor can determine your electrolyte levels with a simple blood test. The results can be used to diagnose a wide variety of conditions. Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance will vary depending upon which electrolyte is affected and whether its levels are too high or too low.

Some common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Confusion.
  • Fatigue.
  • Abdominal pain and vomiting.
  • Numbness and twitching.
  • Altered blood pressure.
  • Seizures and convulsions.
  • Muscle aches and spasms.

How Can You Increase the Electrolytes in Your Diet?

The first thing to do to treat an electrolyte imbalance is to identify what has caused it. For many people, treating an electrolyte imbalance just involves a simple modification to their diet. As a general rule, we should cut back on take-out and junk food and focus on cooking healthy fresh meals at home.

If your electrolyte levels are too low, then you should concentrate on eating foods that contain high amounts of the correct molecule. Vegetables (particularly cruciferous and starchy vegetables) and fruits are a great source of potassium and magnesium. At the same time, nuts, seeds and whole grains provide plenty of magnesium. You can find calcium in leafy vegetables and legumes, as well as in dairy products. Table salt and salty foods offer lots of sodium. However, it is important to carefully manage sodium levels as too much can lead to excessive water retention. If you struggle to consume enough electrolytes within your diet, you may consider taking a high-quality supplement, but you should discuss this with your doctor first.

Don't forget to keep yourself well-hydrated but remember that being overly hydrated can be just as bad. As a general rule, you should drink to match your thirst.

If your electrolyte levels are severely affected, then you may require hospitalization and close clinical monitoring.

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