One of the most frustrating things about trying to keep up in the health and wellness arena is knowing what all those buzzwords mean. There are some words that don’t mean much at all (like “toxins”) and others that describe a very important component of daily health – those are the terms we should make a point to understand better.
Tune into most fitness ads and you’ll see the word “electrolytes” being used willy nilly (often to sell sugary drinks, yuck). What are these mystical chemicals? Are they good for us? Where can we find them? Read on for a crash course in electrolytes and how to find them in healthy, natural sources of food and drink.
WHAT ARE ELECTROLYTES?
In scientific terms, electrolytes are substances that, when dissolved in water, create a solution that can conduct electricity. The muscles and neurons in our bodies need electrolytes to send electrical impulses between cells. While they are regulated by certain hormones and our kidneys, sometimes our electrolyte levels become skewed. Perspiration causes a dip in electrolytes that need to be replaced through our diet, especially sodium and potassium.
Electrolytes in humans include sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen phosphate. To make sure the levels of electrolytes in our blood are balanced, we have to be mindful of consuming the right amount of foods in that have these elements.
WHAT HAPPENS IF WE HAVE TOO MUCH OR TO LITTLE IN OUR SYSTEM?
Having an excess or deficiency in electrolytes can be very serious and lead to debilitating illnesses. A harmful amount of sodium in our systems is called either hypernatremia (too much sodium) or hyponatremia (too little sodium). The former is often linked to dehydration or the use of diuretics and can lead to adverse cognitive affects, paralysis, and even seizures. Hyponatremia is what can happen if someone consumes too many fluids and their sodium levels bottom out. People with diabetes and liver, heart, or kidney failure are especially susceptible to these effects.
Low potassium levels (hypokalemia) are also linked to diuretics and contribute to very few immediate symptoms. Left unchecked, insulin production can drop and blood sugar levels can spike. Hyperkalemia, or too much potassium, occurs when the kidneys cannot keep up with potassium consumption (either through foods or supplements) or when certain medications affect potassium levels in the blood.
Calcium is another common nutrient that needs a delicate touch. Hypocalcemia, or low calcium levels, can cause numbness in extremities, confusion, and even seizures. Vitamin D deficiencies and certain medications can lead to this condition. The opposite effect, hypercalcemia, can be borne of thyroid tumors and bone cancer.
WHERE CAN I FIND HEALTHY, NATURAL, PLANT-BASED SOURCES?
Luckily, plant foods contain a plethora of micronutrients, including those that also qualify as electrolytes! For a boost of calcium in your diet, include collard greens, black-eyed peas, calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, broccoli, kale, mustard greens, boy choy, soy nuts, and cabbage in your meals. To make sure you’re getting potassium in your foods, eat peas, winter squash, tomatoes, broccoli, bananas, kiwis, and cantaloupe. And for a magnesium boost, throw in some pumpkin seeds, green leafy vegetables, and blackstrap molasses.