What are electrolytes and do I replenish them?
Electrolytes play a pivotal role in the body – from balancing blood pressure to building new tissue. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains what electrolytes are, where we get them and how we can maintain levels for optimal health.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are substances, typically salts and minerals, which help regulate the balance of our body fluids. Examples include sodium, potassium and chloride as well as calcium, phosphate and bicarbonate; they are present in our cells as well as in body fluids like blood and urine. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure, then electrolytes are likely to play a critical role in managing your condition.
As their name suggests electrolytes, have an electrical charge and it’s this property which allows them to activate many bodily functions. These functions include producing energy, contracting muscles like those of the heart and transmitting messages via nerves.
Why are electrolytes important?
Electrolytes are important for our health because they help our bodies in the following ways:
- Balance the amount of water
- Maintain the pH level (acid/alkaline) of our blood within the optimal range (7.35-7.45)
- Move nutrients in and waste materials out of our cells
- Activate muscles to contract and help our heart to beat
- Transmit nerve signals
- Help blood clotting
- Build new tissue
Why might you be low in electrolytes?
Your body works hard to maintain your electrolyte balance within a pretty tight range. However, levels may get out of balance if you’ve suffered from a period of prolonged vomiting and diarrhoea, have a fever or have been sweating excessively following strenuous physical activity.
Other reasons might include not drinking or eating enough, for example in conditions like anorexia and bulimia, or conversely eating and drinking to excess; chronic respiratory conditions like emphysema or when taking certain medications including steroids, diuretics or laxatives.
How would I know if my electrolyte levels are out of balance?
Your daily need for electrolytes depends on a number of factors including your age, activity levels, the amount and type of fluids you drink and the climate you live in. Signs that might suggest an imbalance include muscle spasms or weakness, irregular heart rate, tiredness, confusion and a change in blood pressure.
How can I replenish my electrolyte levels?
Eating a balanced diet, which includes a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, and staying well hydrated is key to replenishing and maintaining electrolyte levels. Here are some other things you can do to maintain balance:
- Don’t add salt to your food, instead flavour foods using herbs and spices.
- Avoid highly physical outdoor activity during the hottest times of the day. If you are training for a sports event, such as a marathon, you will need to pay particular attention to how you hydrate, this is because both fluid and electrolytes are lost in sweat. That said, you don’t want to overdo the fluids because consuming too many drinks, especially those with a diuretic action, may flush electrolytes out of the body. Read our guide on how to stay hydrated.
- Finally, if you are on medication, including over-the-counter products, and you suspect they may be causing an imbalance, speak to your GP or pharmacist.
Try these electrolyte-boosting recipes
We’ve hand-picked a selection of recipes which include useful ingredients to support your electrolyte levels. Helpful foods include spinach, kale, avocado, strawberries, eggs, soya and lean meats.
Watermelon & strawberry slushie
Curried spinach & lentil soup
Avocado & black bean eggs
Mexican beans & avocado toast
Blueberry & banana power smoothie
Banana & tahini porridge
Halloumi, carrot & orange salad
Chilli & orange salmon with watercress, new potatoes & wasabi mayo
5-a-day chicken with kale & pistachio pesto
This article was published on 1 October 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.