Many bodily processes require electrolytes. They are necessary for nerve and muscle function, blood pressure regulation, and hydration.
Electrolytes are substances that conduct electricity when they dissolve in water. In food and drink, electrolytes are present in the form of essential minerals. Examples of electrolytes include:
Getting the right amount of electrolytes is vital for human health. Read on to learn about the best dietary sources of electrolytes, how many electrolytes a person needs, and more.
Many foods and drinks contain electrolytes, including:
- Leafy green vegetables: Spinach, kale, and collard greens are good sources of calcium and magnesium.
- Other vegetables: Avocado, sweet potato, and squash are rich in potassium. Potatoes are a good source of phosphorous and magnesium, and, with their skin on, they are also high in potassium.
- Fruits: Bananas, dried apricots, prunes, and other fruits are high in potassium.
- Dairy products: Cheese, yogurt, and other forms of dairy are good sources of calcium. They also contain other electrolytes, such as magnesium, sodium, and phosphorous.
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts, seeds, and nut or seed butters are a good source of magnesium, and some, such as cashews, contain moderate amounts of phosphorous.
- Beans and lentils: Lentils, kidney beans, and soybeans contain magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous. Tofu can be a source of calcium if the manufacturers use calcium sulfate as a coagulant.
- Table salt and salty foods: Table salt contains approximately 40% sodium and 60% chloride. Salty foods, such as olives and pickles, are also a source of these electrolytes.
- Breakfast cereals: Some cereals are fortified with calcium, while many wheat- and oat-based cereals contain magnesium.
Some drinks are naturally rich in electrolytes, while others have undergone special formulation to provide electrolytes.
Drinks that naturally contain electrolytes include:
- milk, which contains calcium and potassium
- orange juice, which contains potassium and, sometimes, calcium
- coconut water, which contains potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium and is naturally low in sugar
- soy milk, which contains magnesium and potassium
- tomato juice, which contains sodium
Beverages marketed as sports or recovery drinks typically contain good amounts of electrolytes. They may appeal to athletes who wish to boost their electrolyte levels before, during, and after workouts.
Electrolytes from both foods and drinks contribute to a person’s overall electrolyte levels. Most people can get enough electrolytes from their regular diet, and they do not need to supplement with sports drinks or oral rehydration supplements.
The body regulates electrolyte levels efficiently. However, there are some situations in which people may benefit from using electrolyte drinks or oral rehydration supplements.
Those who engage in extreme workouts or sweat a lot while working out may also need to rehydrate and replace lost electrolytes using a sports drink.
Individuals should speak to their doctor or pharmacist before taking electrolyte supplements. A high intake of electrolytes can contribute to an electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolytes play an essential role in many bodily functions and processes. They are important for:
- balancing blood pH and blood pressure
- ensuring adequate hydration
- facilitating the transfer of electrical impulses from the heart, muscle, and nerve cells to other cells
- helping fix tissue damage
- regulating nerve and muscle function, including muscle relaxation and contraction
- contributing to blood clotting
How many electrolytes do you need?
For general health, most people need to get the following amounts of electrolytes each day from their diet:
- Potassium: 3,400 milligrams (mg) for adult males and 2,600 mg for adult females.
- Calcium: 1,000 mg for people aged 19–50 and males aged 51–70; 1,200 mg for females aged 51 or over and males aged 71 and over.
- Magnesium: 400 mg for males and 310 mg for females aged 19–30; 420 mg for males and 320 mg for females aged 31 and over.
- Phosphorous: 700 mg for people aged 19 and over.
- Sodium: A maximum of 2,300 mg, but ideally no more than 1,500 mg.
- Chloride: The Institute of Medicine set the level of chloride at the equivalent level as sodium, as almost all dietary chloride comes from table salt.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may require higher amounts of some minerals.
An electrolyte imbalance happens when electrolyte levels in the blood are too high or too low. Such imbalances can cause health issues. In rare cases, they can be fatal.
Potential causes of an electrolyte imbalance include:
- intense exercise
- vomiting or diarrhea
- eating disorders
- kidney disease
- type 1 diabetes
- severe burns
- some medications, including diuretics
Mild imbalances may not cause many symptoms, but more severe imbalances can cause a wide range of symptoms. The symptoms that a person experiences will depend on the specific electrolyte and whether the amount is too high or too low.
Signs of a serious electrolyte imbalance include:
- blood pressure changes
- shortness of breath
- nausea and vomiting
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- weakness or difficulty moving
- frequent or infrequent urination
- extreme thirst
If a person experiences these symptoms, they should seek medical help immediately.
The easiest way to maintain the optimal balance of electrolytes in the body is to eat a healthful diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and other good sources of these essential minerals. It is also important to stay hydrated, but without drinking too many fluids.
When exercising, people can avoid strenuous activities during the hottest times of the day. They should consume water or a moderate amount of an electrolyte drink during and after very intense workouts.
Those who experience vomiting or diarrhea should try to stay hydrated and talk to their doctor or pharmacist about taking an oral rehydration supplement.
It is important to discuss any symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance with a doctor as soon as they occur. Prompt action may prevent a mild imbalance from becoming more severe.
Electrolytes in foods and drinks are essential minerals that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the nerves and muscles and for other bodily processes.
Most people will be able to maintain a healthy electrolyte balance by eating a balanced diet, drinking enough liquids, watching their salt intake, and avoiding strenuous exercise during hot weather.
People who become dehydrated due to illness or extreme physical exertion may need to take an oral rehydration supplement or sports drinks to help balance their electrolyte levels.
Anyone who has concerns about their electrolyte levels should contact their doctor.