Rich sources of electrolytes are leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fruit (especially bananas, which are great when eaten as a pre- or post-workout snack), soy, dairy, fish and lean meat, among many others. “Electrolytes affect our bodies in positive and negative ways, depending on whether or not they are lacking or in sufficient supply, as they serve a vital role in the body, from maintaining pH balance to promoting quality sleep,” says Best. Because they are involved in functions at the cellular level, they impact every area of health.
While we need electrolytes replenished all day long, “we need them most especially after we’ve lost fluid through sweat or sickness,” says Best, as a way to replenish stores, boost the immune system and resupply nutrients and help muscles rest and recover.
For example, “low levels of calcium, magnesium and phosphate negatively impact brain health and may lead to poor focus and cognition, and the heart requires potassium to keep it in rhythm, so when levels are low, it can cause strain on the heart, which can lead to cardiac arrest,” explains Best. Proper potassium levels can also help prevent kidney stones.
All of these are reasons why you don’t want your electrolyte levels depleted, but you also don’t want them to be elevated, either. “An imbalance in electrolytes, whether too high or too low, can cause either polyuria or dysuria, frequent or low levels of urination, and this can cause poor bladder and urinary tract health and can increase the potential for UTI’s,” Best says.
And while all electrolytes are needed for sufficient hydration and overall health, there are a few specific ones that are best matched for particular bodily signals and needs.
If you have dry mouth and skin: sodium
“Dry mouth and skin can be a sign of low sodium, which seems counterintuitive considering high salt meals can cause dry mouth; however, hyponatremia, medically diagnosed low sodium, can cause skin to lose elasticity, become dry and cracked, and increase thirst significantly,” says Best.
If you have leg and muscle cramps (especially during a workout): calcium
According to Best, electrolytes are essential for helping muscles relax and perform, especially during high-intensity exercise. “Low electrolytes can cause an athlete to experience soreness and tightness more so than usual, and recovery time may take longer, but electrolytes aid in this process by preventing cramps, keeping the muscles relaxed, and allowing the rebuilding process to occur more seamlessly,” Best says.
And while all electrolytes are helpful, calcium is particularly useful for relieving cramps. “A crucial loss of electrolytes, specifically calcium, can cause leg cramps, muscle spasms, and cramping, which occurs at the cellular level inside the muscles,” says Best. So don’t forget to replenish your water and electrolyte levels to make up for what you lose from both exhalation and sweating.
You have tooth pain and enamel sensitivity: potassium
“When the blood becomes too acidic, which can occur as a result of potassium deficiency, the teeth are an area that are seriously affected,” says Best. This acidity breaks down calcium in our teeth and wears on the protective enamel, which causes tooth pain and further damage to the teeth and gums.
Potassium is most potent when combined with magnesium. “Magnesium and potassium work together to prevent this acidity from occurring, which ultimately allows the body to use its calcium more efficiently,” says Best. Both are found in peanut and almond butter, leafy greens, and bananas.
Plus, you can get a bit of potassium in your toothpaste, so swap paste, if needed. “Potassium nitrate is often found in toothpastes as an active ingredient that works to block the transmission of pain from the tooth and to your brain,” says Daly, whereby you’ll notice alleviation of tooth pain when eating foods that may typically cause discomfort and pain when you’re chewing, too.
You have brain fog or pain in your head and temples: magnesium
“Magnesium plays an important role in helping the neurotransmitters in the brain work more efficiently, and when there is a lack of magnesium, they are not able to process synapses and signals, which ultimately inhibits adequate mental cognition and acuity,” says Best.
If you have fragile bones or are getting injured often: phosphorus
When it comes to bone health we immediately think of calcium, but phosphorus is an important mineral for bone health and improving its strength and structure, and thus it shouldn’t be overlooked. “Phosphorus is an important component of cell membranes, especially those located in the bones, and an imbalance of phosphorus, whether the amount is excessive or deficient, can have an impact on bone health and fragility,” says Best.
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