All About Electrolytes - Ask a Nutritionist

October 5, 2023

Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electrical charges in your body. They are important in many bodily functions. Who should be taking them? Tune into this week's episode of Ask a nutritionist with Britni to learn all about electrolytes

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

BRITNI: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. I am Britni Vincent, a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. And on today's show brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness, I will be answering a nutrition question we've received from our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners. The question today is, “Thoughts on taking electrolytes on a daily basis. I work out every morning and it feels like drinking water all day is not enough. Sometimes I still feel parched in the evening. Is it safe to add electrolytes daily?”

So my simple answer to this question is yes, it, it definitely can be safe to do on a daily basis, especially when you notice benefits if you just genuinely feel better or you notice that you're not feeling as parched as you were after starting electrolytes. I'm excited to dive into this topic today because I am realizing, you know more and more that there are a lot of people out there that can actually benefit from taking electrolytes, whether it be on a regular basis or maybe a semi-regular basis.

What are electrolytes & some functions they provide in the body

So first, let's dig into some science. You know, what are electrolytes? Sodium chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate are all the different electrolytes in our body. And electrolytes are minerals that conduct electrical charges in your body. And this allows the transmission of messages from cell to cell. You know, specifically sodium and potassium are most important for fluid balance, and I am going to focus more on those two today.

But here are some other functions in the body that are supported by electrolytes: energy metabolism, conducting electricity to power the nervous system, producing and regulating hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, aldosterone, an antidiuretic hormone. Calcium and magnesium are directly involved in ATP synthesis. And ATP is basically the energy of our cells. I mentioned earlier that fluid balance is managed by our potassium and our sodium. This helps to maintain optimal levels of water in all the tissues throughout our body.

We are 60% water by weight, which is kind of crazy to think about. Being hydrated is not just about drinking water. You also need to have adequate electrolytes to be properly hydrated. And again, sodium and potassium are key players for hydration. Regulating blood pressure: that is another function of electrolytes in the body, regulating muscle contraction, including the heartbeat and promoting restful sleep.

Sweating may increase the need for more electrolytes

So who would benefit to taking electrolytes? Generally speaking, if you work out regularly, especially if you get really sweaty during your workouts, or maybe you're just somebody that tends to sweat a lot, especially in the summer months. You would probably benefit from supplementing with some electrolytes, at least on those days that you're working out or those days that you feel like you're sweating a lot because of the warmer weather. But even if you don't work out on a regular basis, there are other, other benefits to supplementing with electrolytes.

Electrolytes may help alleviate headaches and migraines

So here are some other reasons. If you are somebody that gets headaches or migraines on a regular basis, clinically, I have seen individuals see improvement in their migraines and headaches by introducing electrolytes. Personally, if I feel a headache or migraine coming on, I start to drink electrolytes and I do feel that it really helps the majority of the time. And the reason for electrolytes helping headaches or migraines could be a couple different reasons; could be related to blood pressure. Individuals that are more prone to headaches or migraines are more likely to have lower blood pressure.

And the other reason would be hydration status. Again, you know, even if you're drinking adequate water, your body could still be dehydrated. So getting some adequate sodium on board may help to increase your blood pressure if you're somebody that has lower blood pressure. And then also help to adequately hydrate your body too.

Electrolytes may help alleviate muscle cramps in some cases

Muscle cramps: that would be another reason why you might take electrolytes. I had a client years ago, she had restless leg syndrome, and she was on prescription medications for years. She was taking magnesium. That is generally my first recommendation to, to individuals that have restless leg syndrome or muscle cramps, is increasing magnesium intake and then supplementing with magnesium.

So for her, it did not really help her restless leg syndrome. She did not have iron deficiency. That is another thing to look at. So I recommended that she do some electrolytes on a daily basis and once she started that her, her restless leg syndrome went completely away, which allowed her to sleep better. And generally she just felt a whole lot better without the restless legs and then getting adequate sleep. So if you are somebody with muscle cramps or restless legs, you've taken magnesium glycinate before, you don't have iron deficiency, but you're still getting them, well, it might be because of lack of, of electrolytes in your body.

Electrolytes may help regulate blood pressure

Blood pressure; you know, high blood pressure specifically, but can be from low potassium. Low potassium can increase your blood pressure and Americans in general do not get enough potassium rich foods in their diet. And the ratio of potassium to sodium in most Americans diets is completely imbalanced. You know, historically we used to consume a lot more potassium than we did sodium, and now it is reversed. Americans are consuming a lot more sodium than they are potassium.

Potassium rich foods include fruits, veggies, avocados, beans, lentils. So you can see why so many Americans, you know, they're not getting those potassium rich foods. So possibly increasing your potassium, definitely by eating more of those real foods. And then some individuals taking electrolytes that, that do have the potassium in it help to lower their blood pressure.

Electrolytes may help with energy if there is a deficiency

Energy: this might be another reason to take electrolytes. People who eat a low carb diet and then especially if they're exercising on top of that, they could definitely be at risk of electrolyte deficiency. You know, if you're salt deficient, you are going to be tired. And I know it, it sounds crazy to talk about being salt deficient, but it is a real thing because people who follow a low carb diet are typically not eating many foods that that contain a lot of salt and, and they're actually losing more sodium through their urine.

You may have heard of the carb flu before. If you are somebody that has done a low carb diet. And the carb flu is basically referring to feeling really tired and like flu-like symptoms after significantly reducing your carb intake. And the electrolyte piece of this can be a big part of, or the reason why people experience what they call the carb flu.

Electrolytes can help with dizziness/lightheadedness in some cases

Individuals that feel dizzy or lightheaded, they might benefit by incorporating some electrolytes. This could be related to blood pressure. It could be related to dehydration. It could definitely be related to blood sugar, which is a completely different topic than what we're discussing today. But if you have identified that it's not a blood sugar reason why you're getting dizzy or lightheaded, then you might want to explore this as as an option. You know, there's a condition called POTS and we're seeing that more frequently clinically and individuals with POTS experience a lot of dizziness and lightheadedness and, and clinically with those clients we have seen, they get some symptom relief by having electrolytes on a daily basis, especially electrolytes with a fair amount of sodium in them.

What are some conditions that can develop from sodium deficiency?

This next topic I think is going to get a lot of attention: excess urination. I hear this from a lot of clients: “I'm just going to the restroom all the time.” And especially at night, which is so frustrating to be woken up. And then, you know, sometimes it can be difficult to fall back asleep. I have a reason for you. Sodium deficiency can impair secretion of antidiuretic hormone, which can cause increased trips to the bathroom, especially in the middle of the night.

So I have a client story with this one. You know, one of my clients, she eats really, really wonderfully, you know, as almost as close to perfect as you can get, but she was experiencing a lot of thirst, especially at night, and she definitely was getting adequate fluid intake, and then she was having to urinate a lot at night as well. So she's getting really thirsty and using, having to use the restroom a lot in the middle of the night and then her sleep suffered because of it, as you can imagine.

And she is somebody that eats a low carb diet. And what we figured out: she was salt deficient. You know, she, like most Americans, got used to, you know, not salting her food very much and then she wasn't eating many high sodium foods. So we had her start taking electrolytes on a daily basis and she told me it was life changing. She has had significantly fewer trips to the bathroom at night. She does not experience that excessive thirst and she has more energy, which I think is, you know, of course in part because she's sleeping a whole lot better. But also I think that getting more sodium in her body increased her energy. She has not been getting those significant energy dips that she once was getting.

That leads me into, you know, another reason for possibly including electrolytes is drinking too much water or like my client, you're drinking adequate water but you're still feeling thirsty. And the Dishing Up Nutrition listener who posed this question today, that's what they said too. They they were feeling parched even though they were drinking enough water. And the reason for this is drinking a lot of water, not having a lot, a lot of higher sodium foods in your diet, you can actually reduce the sodium in your body.

So again, you're not hydrated: your cells, your tissues are not actually hydrated because you don't have enough sodium on board, and maintaining fluid balance, it, it's just a lot more complicated than simply drinking enough water, which I think we've really been led to believe is all we need to do is, is drink enough water. So that electrolyte status is, is really critical for just optimal fluid balance throughout our body. And you've heard me refer to sodium a lot today and you know, when I talk about this with my clients, some of them are a little iffy.

They're like, really? You want me to increase my sodium intake? And I think that, you know, salt, sodium has, has kind of been demonized over the years and there's a lot of conflicting research out there. But you know what I do know that is if you are eating a real food diet of, you know, meats, vegetables, eggs, fish, starchy carbohydrates, fruits, healthy fats, you're not getting a lot of naturally occurring sodium in those foods. And what can happen is you become salt deficient.

In the standard American diet. We think about the highly processed food. Yes, that contains a lot of high sodium foods in there. With that comes a lot of chemicals, generally a lot of processed carbohydrates and sugar. So you're getting all of those harmful components that can negatively impact your health, not just the sodium on board. And yes, there, there can be some salt sensitive individuals out there, but I found this, this information really interesting that the average American consumes about 3,700 milligrams of sodium a day.

And this value has remained relatively constant for the last 50 years despite the rise in rates of high blood pressure and heart disease. So I do think without a doubt, some of, or most of the rise in high blood pressure and heart disease really is related to the processed carbohydrates and the sugar that people are consuming. I do know that looking in at the research that salt restriction can actually be very dangerous. One study showed that sodium excretion greater than 7,000 milligrams or less than 3000 milligrams per day was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart attack and death. And this was research published in JAMA and there is more research out there to support that salt restriction could actually be harmful for our health. And what happens if we don't have enough salt in your body is your body will actually start to break down bone to maintain sodium levels in the body, in, in our blood.

So, yikes, that is, that is scary. And if we think about this big picture, what I, what I believe is generally speaking, if you are eating a real food diet, you don't need to worry about your salt intake. And I would encourage you to even salt your food as well. You know, eating real foods and even salting your food for most individuals, that is not at all going to be harmful for your health and in fact it may be beneficial for your health. So today we, we dived into the electrolytes and you know, there are a lot of different types of electrolytes, powders, tabs, all of that out there.

And it really depends on the person what specific kind of electrolytes may benefit from them. But you know, often I would say there's no harm in trying it. And if you feel better, well then there's your answer and of course there's going to be some people out there that it's not necessarily going to benefit them.

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