What are electrolytes? And what happens if we don’t have enough? Electrolytes are particles that carry a positive or negative electric charge once dissolved in water. They are essential for our cells, organs, and body systems to work properly. (48) The levels of electrolytes in your body can become too low or too high, leading to an electrolyte imbalance.

Keep reading to find out more about electrolytes, possible signs of imbalance, along with specific foods and supplements that can help get your electrolyte levels back on track.

What are electrolytes?

By nutritional standards, the term ‘electrolytes’ refers to essential minerals found in your blood, sweat, and urine. When these minerals dissolve in a fluid, they form electrolytes — which are positive or negative ions used in metabolic processes. (52) We get these electrolytes from what we eat and drink. They play vital roles in keeping the body hydrated, conducting nervous impulses, contracting muscles, and regulating the body’s pH levels. (20)(15)

father and daughter cooking in kitchen

Most individuals meet their electrolyte needs through eating a balanced diet, but low levels of electrolytes and imbalances do happen.

A list of common electrolytes found in your body that are needed to maintain bodily function include:

Electrolyte imbalances

In some cases, electrolyte levels in the body can become too low or high, triggering an imbalance. (58)(56)(21) Severe electrolyte imbalance can be harmful to your health, and in rare cases, it’s even fatal. (27)

Dehydration is by far the most common cause of electrolyte imbalances. (40) Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can be caused by:

  • Certain illnesses and conditions, such as kidney disease, metabolic alkalosis, and eating disorders (59)(57)
  • Certain medications such as diuretics, steroids, or laxatives (4)
  • Chronic respiratory problems such as emphysema (37)
  • Inadequate intake of water from food or beverages (41)
  • Injuries from severe burns (11)
  • Loss of fluids from persistent vomiting, sweating, fever, or extreme heat (19)

Electrolyte imbalance symptoms and signs

With a mild electrolyte disturbance, you likely won’t experience any symptoms. However, if you’re dehydrated due to excessive heat, exercise, or illness, you could suffer from an electrolyte imbalance symptom, such as a headache or muscle cramp. (24)(60)

Other symptoms of imbalance and low electrolytes levels may include:

  • Convulsions
  • Cramping (44)
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat (36)
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness and tingling (44)

How likely is it for you to have high electrolyte levels?

Except for sodium, it’s unlikely that you’ll get too much of any particular electrolyte from your diet. However, keep in mind the risk may be higher if your kidneys aren’t functioning normally. (35)(17) You may also be at risk if you are taking large amounts of certain dietary supplements, such as potassium or calcium. (10) It’s always ideal to work with a healthcare provider to help determine the best supplements for your wellness plan.

elder man drinking water from a glass

Older adults have a higher risk of electrolyte deficiencies. (46)

Did you know?
Too much calcium from supplements can increase your risk of kidney stones. If you think you could be suffering from an electrolyte imbalance, it would be beneficial to discuss any possible symptoms with your practitioner. (49)

Spotting & addressing common electrolyte imbalances

As previously mentioned, your body requires electrolytes for a range of bodily processes. How an electrolyte imbalance affects your health — and how quickly you notice symptoms — depends on which electrolytes are being affected, and how high or low your levels are.

Find out what specific electrolytes do for your body, signs you may be suffering an imbalance, and which electrolyte-rich foods you can eat to get your levels back on track. (48)

Potassium

Potassium regulates blood pressure, supports cell and heart function, prevents bone loss and kidney stones, and plays a key role in muscle contraction and fluid balance.

Low potassium levels (hypokalemia) may not cause any noticeable symptoms at first, but they can affect how your body is storing glycogen and cause abnormal heart rhythms. You may notice muscle weakness, cramps, paralysis, respiratory problems, and spasms. And if symptoms continue, you may even start to experience kidney problems. High potassium levels, on the other hand, are only likely to trigger abnormal heart rhythms and muscle weakness. (36)(51)

Foods high in potassium

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Beans
  • Dried fruits
  • Kale
  • Spinach (32)

Sodium

Sodium is an essential electrolyte responsible for the changes in electrical charge of the nerve cell membranes that generate nerve impulses. When sodium crosses the nerve cell membrane, a chain reaction is set off that moves more sodium ions along the length of the nerve cell axon. (28)

Low sodium, or hyponatremia, causes water to move into cells. High levels of sodium, also called hypernatremia, causes fluid to move out of the cells. Both high and low levels of sodium can cause headaches, confusion, fatigue, and personality changes. If sodium levels drop drastically, it can even result in seizures, coma, and death. (14)

Foods high in sodium

  • Broth
  • Pickles
  • Salted nuts
  • Smoked or cured meat or fish
  • Soy sauce (18)

Did you know?
A tell-tale symptom of hypernatremia is excessive thirst. (31)

Calcium

Calcium is a crucial electrolyte required for muscle contraction. It helps your body’s muscle fibers slide together and move over each other as the muscles contract. (50)

Low calcium (hypocalcemia) levels that are chronically low can trigger changes in your hair, nails, and skin. You may also notice an uptick in yeast infections and cataracts. As levels continue to be depleted, you may notice muscle cramps in your legs and back. More severe symptoms include muscle spasms, spasms of the larynx, and seizures. (8)

Conversely, high levels of calcium could result in loss of appetite, vomiting, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, emotional mood swings, delirium, and confusion.

Foods high in calcium:

  • Calcium-fortified cereals
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Yogurt (53)

Magnesium

Your body needs magnesium to maintain a fluid balance in the body through osmosis. This mineral is also required in the process of muscle contraction. Magnesium helps with calcium reuptake, helping your muscle fibers slide and relax after contraction. (2)(23)(30)(16)

Low levels of magnesium may result in symptoms similar to low calcium or potassium levels. And extremely low levels can be life-threatening. High levels can also be dangerous, triggering low blood pressure, breathing problems, and heart problems such as cardiac arrest. (1)

Foods high in magnesium

  • Almonds
  • Kale
  • Lentils
  • Peanut butter
  • Spinach
  • Whole grains (30)

Did you know?
Osmosis is the process of water moving through the wall of a cell membrane from a solution with more water and fewer electrolytes towards a solution with less water and more electrolytes. It keeps cells from getting dehydrated. (29)

Chloride

Chloride is an electrolyte responsible for helping the body maintain fluid balance, blood pressure, blood volume, and body pH levels. Typically grouped alongside sodium, chloride is commonly found in table salt and other processed foods. We lose chloride in high concentrations when we sweat. (12)

Low chloride levels may occur following extended vomiting and intake of diuretic medications to treat fluid retention. High levels of chloride often result from kidney disease or diarrhea but don’t cause any typical symptoms. (7)(25)

Foods high in chloride

  • Celery
  • Lettuce
  • Olives
  • Rye
  • Seaweed
  • Table salt
  • Tomatoes (38)

Phosphate

Phosphate plays a vital role in metabolic pathways, DNA formation, and is essential for the creation of bone and teeth. Our bones contain around 85% of the body’s phosphate content. (39)

Low phosphate levels can cause muscle weakness, respiratory failure, seizures, and coma. A phosphate imbalance can be triggered by poor nutrition, gastrointestinal disorders, diuretic medications, diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), alcoholism, and severe burns. (48)(22)

Foods high in phosphorus

How many electrolytes should you be getting?

Below, we’ve put together the daily recommended intake levels for common electrolytes. (38)

Anyone can develop an electrolyte imbalance if they fail to meet their daily recommended intake levels.

Keep in mind that individual electrolyte requirements can vary depending on several factors, including your age, activity level, the climate in which you live, and water consumption.

What are the best dietary sources of electrolytes?

If you are wondering what the best ways to get electrolytes are, you want to aim to reach all of your electrolyte needs through a balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The following foods are great dietary sources for electrolytes: (38)

Calcium

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Broccoli
  • Okra
  • Soybean
  • Tofu
  • Sardines
  • Cabbage (38)

Chloride

  • Table salt
  • Seaweed
  • Tomatoes
  • Olives
  • Lettuce
  • Celery (38)

Magnesium

  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chickpeas
  • Kale
  • Figs
  • Avocados
  • Artichokes
  • Raspberries (38)

Potassium

  • Bananas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Apricots
  • Dried fruit
  • Avocados
  • Cooked spinach (38)

Sodium

  • Pickles
  • Kimchi
  • Cheese
  • Table salt
  • Cold cut meats
  • Bacon
  • Caviar
  • Anchovies (38)

Studies have proven that the ideal way to maintain and restore electrolyte balance in the body is by eating a healthy diet. (42)(6)

Reasons you may need more electrolytes

Some common reasons why an individual would need to ensure more electrolytes are consumed are:

If you sweat a lot

Yes. When your body sweats, you naturally lose both water and some electrolytes. Through perspiration, you typically excrete a lot of sodium and chloride along with small amounts of potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Long periods of physical activity, particularly in hot climates, or sessions in the sauna, can cause significant electrolyte loss.

Did you know?
You lose around 1 gram of sodium with every liter of sweat. (55)

If you are an athlete

Endurance athletes and high-performance athletes who are exercising for more than two hours in a day may want to consider drinking electrolyte-enriched supplement beverages to replenish their levels. (47)

During physical activity, you need additional fluids to replace the water lost in sweat. Water loss of as little as 1 to 2% of your body weight can be enough to trigger a decrease in strength, speed, and focus.

Sports drinks with electrolytes are recommended over plain water to replace fluid and electrolyte loss if you sweat a lot, are working out in hot environments, or exercise for over an hour. (54)(3)(5)

close up of water bottle on the ground with runner behind it, tying their shoes

Electrolyte-enhanced waters and supplements may benefit athletes by helping replenish water, electrolytes, and the energy lost during exercise.

If you are on the Keto Diet

Are you thinking about electrolyte supplements for the keto diet? It’s a good idea. You can avoid some of these less-desired effects of the keto diet by supplementing with electrolytes.

Starting the keto diet often results in a substantial fluid loss from the body. This impacts the levels of electrolytes in the body as well, which leads to symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and keto flu.

If you are sick

When you’re sick, you may want to consider the benefits of electrolyte supplements. If you end up sick with a bout of vomiting and/or diarrhea which causes you to lose a lot of fluids, you should consider supplementing. Research has shown supplementing with a rehydration solution that contains electrolytes could be useful. (13)

woman laying in bed, reaching for the glass of water on her nightstand

When you are feeling sick and are running a fever, be sure to get enough electrolytes and water. (26)(9)

General tips for keeping electrolyte levels balanced

  • Eat foods rich in electrolytes, such as bananas, spinach, watermelon, yogurt, peanuts, chicken, soybeans, and avocados
  • Remember to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated but be careful not to overdo it; too much fluid can flush all the electrolytes out of your system
  • Avoid excess intake of table salt
  • Avoid exercise outside during scorching times of the year
  • When you workout, replenish your electrolytes with performance supplements, water, sports drinks, and food in the hours after your strenuous activity
  • Talk to your practitioner about any symptoms of low electrolytes that you may be experiencing or medications you may be on that are affecting your electrolyte levels
  • Don’t overuse natural diuretics (such as green tea) or over the counter diuretics without talking to your practitioner first

The bottom line

If you are a healthy adult who is conscientious about staying hydrated and eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, you are likely to meet all your essential electrolyte needs, naturally.

However, if you are worried about experiencing low levels of electrolytes due to keto dieting or a hard workout regimen, you may want to consider supplementing with electrolytes. (43)

If you suspect you may be experiencing an electrolyte imbalance due to a medication or an underlying health condition, you should consider scheduling an appointment with your healthcare practitioner. Your practitioner will be able to adjust your medication and help you address any imbalances.

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