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The Expert-Approved Reasons You Need Electrolytes (and How to Get Them)

Everyone benefits from having the right balance of electrolytes, not just athletes. Here's how to reach that.
The Expert-Approved Reasons You Need Electrolytes (and How to Get Them)

There are tons of different waters out there to keep you hydrated—coconut water, seltzer water, watermelon water, and even water to help you sleep. And if you’re looking for a drink infused with electrolytes, you’re probably reaching for a sports drink. But electrolytes aren’t just found in Gatorade.

They’re in plenty of foods (and drinks) you consume regularly. And even if you’re drinking enough water, here’s an interesting fact: you may still be dehydrated if you aren’t consuming enough electrolytes.

Here’s everything you need to know about electrolytes and whether you’re getting enough.

What are electrolytes?

“Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge needed for nerve control, muscle contraction, hydration, and optimal physiological pH,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.

Electrolytes are minerals like:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Bicarbonate

These important minerals play a critical role in keeping your body functioning.

“In addition to playing the essential role of helping nutrients and waste move inside and outside of cells, electrolytes help control blood pressure and control the nerve impulses that allow muscles relax or contract,” says Cordialis Msora-Kasago, MA, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Each of the various electrolytes plays an important role in the body.

“For example, sodium and potassium work together to maintain the amount of fluids inside and outside of the cells in the body, helping move waste out while bringing nutrients to the cell,” says Msora-Kasago.

What causes electrolyte deficiencies?

There could be a number of things causing a lack of electrolytes.

“Poor diet, exercising for long periods of time without replenishing, continuous nausea and vomiting, as well as health conditions such as kidney disease, congestive heart failure, bulimia, and cancer treatments are some of the most common reasons for electrolytes to become depleted in the body,” says Msora-Kasago.

And if you’re bad at staying hydrated, you’re also putting yourself at risk.

“Dehydration is the most common form of imbalance often related to exercise, weather, illness, and inadequate fluid intake,” says Auslander Moreno.

At the same time, you may be drinking enough water, but if you aren’t consuming enough electrolytes through your diet, you may not be hydrating properly. Hyponatremia can occur if you drink too much water and experience low levels of sodium in your body by diluting the concentration of sodium in your blood.

What are the signs you aren’t getting enough electrolytes?

Your body will definitely let you know if you’re dehydrated and you don’t have enough electrolytes in your system.

Msora-Kasago shares the most common signs of potential electrolyte imbalance:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramping
  • Weakness
  • Fast and irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you could try eating electrolyte-rich foods or drinking mineral-rich beverages.

When do you need more electrolytes?

There are a few situations when you should make sure you’re getting extra electrolytes

Auslander Moreno recommends that you should get more electrolytes if you’re:

  • Doing intense exercise
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Illness (everything from colds/flus to gastrointestinal illnesses resulting in vomiting/diarrhea)
  • In very hot weather

And if you’re on the keto diet, you may be more likely to be dehydrated.

“Keto diets can definitely cause dehydration from high protein intake in the face of inadequate hydration / sudden loss of hydration from fruits and certain vegetables,” says Auslander Moreno.

Or, if you’re on another high-protein diet, you should be upping your water. As the body metabolizes protein, it produces nitrogen waste, which your body flushes out with fluids and water. So even though you may be drinking the same amount of fluid, your body requires more to properly do its job.

RELATED: The 7-day diet that melts your belly fat fast.

There are also physical indicators you should look out for that can signal an electrolyte deficiency.

“High-intensity exercise that produces a lot of salty sweat that may leave stains on your clothes or leave you looking a little ‘chalky’,” says Msora-Kasago.

Use your urine as an indicator that you’re properly hydrated. “We like to see urine that is clear to light yellow,” says Auslander-Moreno.

How can you get more electrolytes?

Many foods, especially produce, are rich in electrolytes.

“Fruits and vegetables provide hydration and also lots of electrolyte minerals — especially the “watery” ones,” says Auslander Moreno.

Examples of the best electrolyte-containing foods include:

  • Watermelon
  • Pineapple
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts)
  • Avocado
  • Spinach
  • Sardines

Plus, electrolytes are also found naturally in many drinks and healthy sports drinks, including:

  • Coconut water
  • Orange juice
  • Chocolate milk
  • Milk

Eating a healthy, balanced diet should provide all the electrolytes you need.

“For many people the word electrolytes is synonymous with sports drinks and hydration mixes, but they are not the only way to get these vital nutrients,” says Msora-Kasago. “The vast majority of people can get the recommended amounts of electrolytes and other nutrients by consuming a well balanced, colorful diet. This is a diet filled with a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds, dairy, and foods that have been fortified with calcium.”

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