Supplementing with Electrolytes: Hype or Necessity?

Let’s talk electrolytes. What are they? How beneficial are they really? It’s important to note that not all electrolytes are created equal, and not all supplements contain the same amounts. For some people, taking these extra sources could benefit their day-to-day activities, enhance performance, or maybe help with managing a health consequence. I personally drink electrolyte-rich solutions weekly and sometimes daily, depending on my activity level and the time of year in North Carolina. In this blog you’ll learn more about what electrolytes are, the different types, and their function in the human body; food and supplement sources of the most common ones, and questions to ask yourself before incorporating electrolyte supplements into your nutrition regimen.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that contain an electric charge, support acid-base homeostasis, take up space in bodily fluids, and participate in various pathways within the human body. When we talk about electrolytes in supplements, the most common are sodium, chloride, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Bicarbonates and  phosphorus (or phosphate) are other sources but aren’t commonly found in the well known electrolyte supplements. 

Below are some keys functions of the common electrolytes found in supplements:

  • Sodium (Na+), along with water, is part of perspiration. It functions to maintain proper water balance in the body, hence supports healthy blood pressure levels, and maintains muscle and nerve health. 

  • Chloride (Cl-) also supports the body’s water balance, plus stimulates stomach acid and is a component of digestive juices. 

  • Magnesium (Mg+) regulates muscle contractions and relaxation, is a part of healthy bones, and helps convert the food we eat into energy. 

  • Calcium (Ca++) also plays a role in bone health, along with nerve and muscle action, and heart health. 

  • Potassium (K+) supports healthy muscle contractions, nerve function, fluid balance, and regulates our heart rate.

When are consuming extra of these minerals necessary?

Before embarking on taking any over the counter supplements, it’s important to consider your own dietary patterns, day-to-day routine, current medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and overall health. Some questions to ask yourself before taking electrolyte supplements:

  • Am I spending several hours a day outside in the heat? 

  • How hot and humid is my environment?

  • How much do I sweat?

  • How active am I? Generally, 30-60 minutes of gentle or moderate activity does not require electrolyte replacement and water is enough for rehydration. Movement that is more intense may also only require water for rehydration, but it can vary depending on one’s environment and fitness level. When meeting greater than 60-90+ minutes of activity, especially moderate to intense forms of movement, this is where thinking about incorporating sodium and maybe carbohydrates into your rehydration regimen has been proven beneficial. Going beyond 4 hours increases this importance even more.

  • Those diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension) should approach adding extra salt/sodium (salt is sodium-chloride combined) with caution as this could exacerbate the condition. Recommendations for managing hypertension include a maximum sodium intake of 2300 mg/d, sometimes as low as 1500mg/d.

  • Those diagnosed with low blood pressure (hypotension) or have low sodium values (hyponatremia) would benefit from adding extra salt to their diet.

  • A diagnosis of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) requires higher intake of sodium and water to keep symptoms in check. Recommendations of 3000-5000 mg/day of sodium are typical.

  • Some common health consequences of an eating disorder include bradycardia (low heart rate) and orthostatic vital changes (abnormal changes in the heart rate or blood pressure when changing positions from lying to standing). These individuals usually benefit from the addition of electrolyte rich fluids on top of proper hydration and nutrition to improve their symptoms until weight restoration is met.

Can I eat my electrolytes?

With any dietary supplement, the answer to this question is almost always yes, food gives us electrolytes. Some individuals still may require extra supplements to maintain adequate levels, but again it’s person dependent. Below are some common sources for each electrolyte.

  • Sodium: table salt, sauces and condiments, cheese, salted butter, chips, pretzels, popcorn, deli meats, and several other pre-packaged foods contain added salt for flavor or presveration.

  • Magnesium: nuts and seeds, legumes, nut butters, leafy greens like spinach, avocados, whole grains, and some cereals are fortified with this micronutrient. A good rule of thumb: foods that contain fiber are a good source of magnesium.

  • Chloride: foods that contain salt, similar to sodium. Meats and many fish are good sources of chloride.

  • Potassium: fruit like bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes; vegetables, legumes, salmon and dairy products, especially cow’s milk and dark chocolate, are good sources of potassium.

  • Calcium: naturally-occurring sources include cow’s milk and other dairy, spinach, broccoli, tofu, and almonds. Foods fortified with calcium include dairy-alternative milks, orange juice, and enriched flour found in bread and cereals.

Electrolyte supplement sources

Electrolyte supplements come in pill and capsule forms, bottled sports drinks, infused water, and powders. Many sports drinks contain electrolytes plus other nutrients, such as carbohydrates or performance-enhancing ingredients. Protein powders generally are fortified with multiple micronutrients that usually include one or multiple electrolytes. Multivitamins for kids, teens, and adults will include one or all of the standard electrolytes. A take away point here is to consider not only your food intake, but all other medications, supplements, and fluids you consume in a day that contain electrolytes already that may be providing you with the necessary amount.

In this blog you’ve gotten some of the facts on what electrolytes are, considerations for taking electrolyte supplements, and food sources available containing these nutrients. Like all supplements, it’s important to analyze your specific situation and determine if it would be beneficial for you. If you are considering taking electrolytes I recommend talking with your dietitian and/or doctor to understand the pros and cons. Consuming electrolytes through a balanced diet is another option and may also be more affordable. 

Still have questions after this blog? Reach out to us at Enhance Nutrition and we can give you support with meeting your electrolyte needs.