What are electrolytes and why are they important?

If you’ve been following me lately, you know I’m a big fan of electrolytes. These minerals can mean the difference between feeling like a champ and feeling like garbage.

I still remember how I felt a few years ago, back when I was low on electrolytes during my jiu-jitsu training. When I started supplementing more aggressively (especially with sodium), my energy came roaring back. It was like night and day.

Since then, the word has gotten out on electrolytes, and I’ve been deluged with questions on the topic. Low-carb folks, in particular, are keen on using electrolytes to prevent keto flu.

Other folks want to know if electrolytes can improve athletic performance, prevent muscle cramps, or reduce fatigue. That depends. Electrolytes aren’t a cure-all. But chances are, if you’re active, low-carb, or both—you need more sodium, potassium, and magnesium in your life. 

Today’s article is your guide to electrolytes: What they are, why you need them, and how to get more of them. Let’s dig in. 

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes aren’t called electro-lytes by accident. These minerals conduct electrical charges in your body.

Every message sent through your nervous system (including your brain) involves electrical transmissions—or nerve impulses—between nerve cells. You need electrolytes, especially sodium and potassium, in order for nerve impulses to fire.

Electrolytes have other functions too. They regulate fluid balance, help you produce energy, and strengthen bones. I’ll cover some of these functions later. 

The main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphate. Based on the latest nutritional evidence, folks tend to be deficient in sodium, potassium, and magnesium— so I’ll zoom in on them in this article.

The ebb and flow of electrolytes in the human body is complex, but to simplify: You lose electrolytes through sweat, urine, and feces—and replace them through diet and supplementation.

Generally, the kidneys keep a tight leash on blood electrolyte levels. For example, if you consume too much salt, your kidneys will get the message and pee out the excess sodium, and balance is restored.

Nonetheless, your kidneys can’t always maintain balance if you are consuming too little of any electrolyte. Drinking too much water and living a low-carb lifestyle—to name two situations—can result in electrolyte imbalances. These situations require extra attention.

I’ll get there soon, but first I want to go into a bit more detail on sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

Sodium

Sodium is an essential mineral with many functions in the human body. Sodium:

  • Regulates fluid balance (blood flow)
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Helps conduct nerve impulses
  • Promotes the release of vasopressin (or antidiuretic hormone) which helps you sleep through the night
  • Increases the absorption of certain nutrients through the gut

Dietary sodium comes from salt, or NaCl. Sodium is almost always found attached to a chloride (Cl) molecule. 

According to the FDA, Americans consume the vast majority of dietary sodium through packaged foods. Only about 11% comes from added salt. Whole foods also contain a bit of sodium, but it’s not enough to meet daily needs.  

Potassium

Potassium is the yin to sodium’s yang. Combined, these two electrolytes are important for:

 

  • Fluid balance: Allowing blood to flow through your vessels
  • Conducting nerve impulses: Sodium (Na+) and potassium ions (K+) allow nerve impulses to fire
  • Healthy blood pressure: Potassium balances the blood-pressure raising effects of sodium, and high potassium intakes are linked to decreased stroke risk
  •  

    But here’s the thing... less than 3% of Americans consume the FDA-recommended amount of 4.7 grams per day.

    The 4.7 gram recommendation isn’t arbitrary. There’s good evidence that higher potassium intakes can mitigate high blood pressure or hypertension. 

    You may need to supplement (I’ll cover this later), but I recommend you meet your potassium needs through diet whenever possible. This means eating lots of fruits of vegetables. Good sources include:

    • Spinach
    • Avocado
    • Tomato
    • Dried apricots
    • Sweet potato
    • Watercress

    Magnesium

    I haven’t forgotten about magnesium, another electrolyte most folks are deficient in. It’s often referred to as the relaxation mineral, but carries benefits far beyond reducing stress and anxiety.

    Magnesium:

    • Helps muscles contract (including your heart)
    • Regulates blood sugar levels
    • Aides in energy (ATP) production
    • Builds bone
    • Contributes to DNA synthesis

    The best dietary source of magnesium is dark leafy greens like spinach and chard. When I supplement with magnesium, I opt for magnesium malate. Other forms, such as magnesium citrate, can function as a laxative and result in “disaster pants”.

    Causes of Electrolyte Deficiency

    If you’re electrolyte deficient, you won’t feel your best. It’s like being low on motor oil. You can squeak by for a while but eventually the affair culminates in a tow truck, a missed dinner reservation, and an ungodly repair bill.

    This is a problem I’m keen to shine a spotlight on. On that note, let’s review the major causes of electrolyte deficiency beyond simply under consuming vital electrolytes through your diet. (Quick note: I won’t discuss chronic medical problems, like kidney disease, that cause electrolyte imbalances. These problems require medical attention, and you should consult your doctor about them). 

    #1: Overwatering

    Many endurance athletes believe that drinking more water is always healthier, ad infinitum, thirst be damned. Because of this, countless people guzzle large volumes of H2O before, during, and after events. 

    Unfortunately, excessive water consumption can dilute blood sodium levels, causing a dangerous condition called hyponatremia. Mild hyponatremia shows up as muscle cramps and fatigue, but as sodium levels continue to drop—confusion, seizures, brain damage, and even death can result. A surprising number of endurance athletes suffer from this condition. (13-15%, by one estimate).

    Here’s the thing. You do need to replace water after exercise, but you also need to replace sodium. Fortunately, as one study showed, drinking a salt-water solution can reverse hyponatremia.

    #2: Dietary Deficiencies

    I’m a big believer in whole foods. It makes me happy when folks reject processed and refined foods.

    However, eliminating processed foods from your diet will lower sodium intake. A whole foods diet, being naturally low in salt, requires liberal salting to meet basic sodium needs. Yet, most people aren’t so aggressive with the shaker because we have (incorrectly) been taught that sodium is bad for us. More on this topic later...

    Getting enough potassium and magnesium, on the other hand, is more about eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and even animal proteins like chicken, beef, fish etc... Anything green and leafy (like spinach) is generally a good source of both minerals, but you need to wolf down a TON of greens to hit your numbers.

    Meeting potassium needs can be difficult on low-carb diets, which restrict potassium-rich foods like fruit and potatoes. More on this next. 

    #3: Low-Carb and Keto Diets

    Going keto means sacrificing many electrolyte-rich (but nutrient-poor) foods - particularly sodium. The blacklist includes high-sodium refined foods, starchy fruits, and certain vegetables.

    And sodium, well… sodium gets doubly depleted on keto: You eat less of it PLUS you urinate more of it out. 

    A low-insulin, low-carb state tells your kidneys to excrete more sodium. Because of this, low-carb folks like me must take active steps to avoid sodium deficiency.

    In fact, low sodium explains why many keto dieters get the headaches, malaise, irritability, fatigue, and mood swings known collectively as the “low-carb flu” or  “keto flu”. The truth is, the keto flu isn’t a rite-of-passage that all keto dieters must suffer through. It’s often just a case of low sodium. Fix the sodium deficiency and you often fix these symptoms.

    But wait. Isn’t eating more salt bad for your heart?

    Sodium and Heart Disease Risk

    The US government recommends limiting sodium intake to 2.3 grams per day. This is ostensibly to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension. For salt sensitive folks with an impaired ability to excrete sodium, this recommendation is probably a good one.

    But most people aren’t salt sensitive. In fact, researchers analyzed 2,632 normotensive (normal blood pressure) people from the Framingham study and found that higher sodium intakes (above 2.5 grams per day) were linked to lower blood pressure. Hm.

    I should also mention that a 2011 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) followed 28,880 folks over seven years. The researchers found that—counter to conventional wisdom—people limiting sodium to under 3 grams per day (measured by sodium excretion) suffered more cardiac events than those consuming 4 to 6 grams sodium per day. In other words, around 5 grams sodium per day was the sweet spot for heart outcomes.

    How To Get Enough Electrolytes

    To wrap up, I’ll give you some tips to dial in your electrolytes so you can feel your best.

    • Mind your diet. Eat lots of leafy greens like spinach, kale, and watercress for low-carb electrolytes. Nuts and fruits are also high in magnesium and potassium, respectively. 
    • Salt aggressively. When you swap packaged foods for real foods, you give up tons of sodium. Put it back. Make friends with the salt shaker, and use it often.
    • Drink bone broth. If you have time, slow cook your own bone broth. Or just buy some from a reputable company. It’s a nice source of gut-healthy nutrients that’s also rich in minerals.
    • Supplement electrolytes. I always encourage getting as many electrolytes from whole foods as possible. This isn’t a hard rule, but for most people, I recommend 5000 mg sodium, 1000 mg potassium, and 300 mg magnesium per day in addition to dietary sources. If you are physically active or spend long hours in the heat, you probably need even more. One way to supplement? Make a homemade electrolyte brew. That’s what I used to do. But these days, I just drink LMNT Recharge—my proprietary electrolyte blend. (One or two sticks per day to augment my training). Each stick contains 1000 mg sodium, 200 mg potassium, and 60 mg magnesium— with no sugar, no artificial ingredients, no gluten, or no fillers.

    Electrolytes can make a big difference in how you feel. If you’re experiencing headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, low-energy, or the low-carb/keto flu—you might simply be low on electrolytes. Sodium, potassium, and magnesium are the three electrolytes folks tend to be most deficient in.

    Low-carbers, in particular, need to eat more salt to compensate for dietary deficiencies and the extra sodium they lose through pee. The sweet spot for sodium, based on published heart health data, is about 5 grams per day but this can vary enormously depending on size, activity level, and relative heat/humidity.

    How can you dial things in for you? In a word, taste. Sodium is one of the few nutrients we can taste specifically. We will look closer at this topic of how to customize your electrolyte intake to suit your needs in a later piece, but for now here is an easy rule to follow: If you begin drinking LMNT, bone broth, etc and it does not taste great, you are likely fine and do not need more at that time. But you might notice that if you work out, take a sauna, do some exercise, that suddenly the LMNT, bone broth or whatever sodium source you are consuming, tastes AMAZING. This may sound a bit woo-woo, but there is sound science behind this and we will dig into it soon.

    To get enough electrolytes, see my recommendations above. Dial-in your diet, salt your food, and consider supplementing.

    Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts and questions on electrolytes in the comments below.