Electrolytes: An Explainer. What they are, how to use them, and choose the right ones

You might have heard of electrolytes in relation to exercise. Perhaps you’re only really aware of them because you know they’re often found in sports drinks and coconut water. Or maybe you’ve landed on this page because you have a particular symptom (like low energy or peeing all the time) and suspect you have an electrolyte imbalance. Stay tuned and get insights on the rising popularity of electrolytes and salt!

Electrolytes aren’t – you’ll be pleased to know – another nutrition buzzword; they’re actually crucial for many bodily functions, like proper hydration, muscle function, balanced PH levels, and loads more.

(In fact, it’s fair to say they’re involved in practically everything the body does.)
Let’s dive into the nitty gritty of what electrolytes actually are, who needs them, who shouldn’t use them, and the brands I use and personally recommend…

What are electrolytes?

The first thing you need to know is that ‘electrolytes’ is an umbrella term. It describes minerals that carry a positive or negative electric charge when dissolved in water.

These minerals are found in your blood, sweat and urine, and are required for many functions in the body, affecting everything from muscle contraction, fluid balance, and nervous system regulation to gastrointestinal movement, heart rate and blood pressure, internal PH levels, and more.  

You’ll find electrolytes in blood plasma and inside cells, where they’re hard at work stabilising cell membranes – AKA your cells’ outer layer. That’s not all, electrolytes play a major role in transporting substances in and out of your cells too.

Electrolytes found in the human body include:

  • Sodium – maintains fluid balance, and aids muscle contractions and nerve function 
  • Potassium – maintains healthy blood pressure and supports muscle and nerve function
  • Bicarbonate – balances acid and alkaline compounds in the body and moves carbon dioxide through your bloodstream 
  • Calcium – stabilises blood pressure and supports the nervous system
  • Magnesium- supports bone and heart health, muscle function, mental wellbeing, and energy production 
  • Chloride – helps the body maintain proper fluid balance. Also aids digestion and supports nerve and muscle function. 
  • Phosphate – supports nerve and muscle function and the skeletal system 

Yep, it’s fair to say electrolytes are a pretty big deal.


What does electrolyte imbalance look like?

Now that you have an idea of the various roles different electrolytes play in the body, it might not come as a surprise, that if the level of electrolytes is too high or too low, it can be pretty disruptive.

An electrolyte imbalance can show up in lots of unpleasant ways, such as headaches, confusion, low energy, feeling sick, muscle weakness and/or cramping, going to the loo frequently, and an irregular heartbeat.

And in some cases, it can lead to life-threatening complications, like coma, seizures, and cardiac arrest, though it’s important to point out, that these are extreme cases. No one panic, please!


Who needs additional electrolytes?

Know this: Most people can get all the electrolytes they need by eating a balanced and varied diet. But sometimes, increasing your electrolyte intake can be beneficial.

If you’re a fan of intense exercise or sweating it out in a sauna, you can lose electrolytes in your sweat so it may be a good idea to replenish them after a particularly gruelling session.

A 2018 study, concluded that electrolyte sports drinks, particularly those containing Glc-Fru and sodium, can improve athletic performance by sustaining metabolism and optimising water absorption. However, we recommend avoiding the ones with added glucose syrups unless you’re an athlete.

Electrolytes may also be something for pregnant and breastfeeding women to also consider. In fact, the recommended daily intake of calcium for pregnant women is 1,000mg, while research suggests the need for magnesium also increases during pregnancy.  

Been sick lately? Most of us are familiar with that weak, sluggish feeling that often accompanies a bout of sickness – it can be (in part) down to a loss of electrolytes. Gastro illnesses can cause dehydration and disrupt nutrient absorption (which in turn can have a knock-on effect on electrolyte balance).

Certain health conditions and medications can also impact your electrolyte levels. Diabetes, for example, can significantly impact electrolyte balance as one of its symptoms – increased urination – can lead to electrolyte loss.

Did you know that when you have more sugar in your blood the body will try to reduce the sugar volume by increasing urination? This can put people off drinking as they feel they drink and wee consecutively. But dehydration only increases the sugar concentration in the blood and the risk of a UTI heightens. Get drinking, get electrolytes and get your blood sugars down.

Finally, are you planning to spend a lot of time in the heat or have you found yourself parched after a long day spent in the sun? Electrolytes are important here too as excess sweating can lead to electrolyte loss – especially a loss of sodium and chloride.


Who shouldn’t use electrolytes?

Nutrition is never one-size-fits-all, and electrolytes are no different. If you’re on anti-hypertensive medication, then electrolyte supplementation is a no-go, for a few reasons.

First off, excessive dietary salt can contribute to hypertension and electrolyte supplements or high-sodium drinks could potentially interfere with the effectiveness of anti-hypertensive medications.

What’s more, potassium intake is associated with lower blood pressure and some anti-hypertensive medications are diuretics, which can lead to potassium loss.

It’s best to stick with food options, like Himalayan or Celtic Salt, so we don’t combat what medications are trying to do.

You should be wary too if you have kidney problems as excessive levels of electrolytes can strain the kidneys.


Electrolyte sources

Now for the most important part: Where do you get electrolytes? Try to include them in your diet before considering supplementation.

Here are some foods that provide electrolytes:

  • Sodium: Cheese, beetroot, olives, salt
  • Potassium: Leafy greens, beans, lentils, bananas
  • Calcium: Dairy products, leafy green vegetables, beans
  • Magnesium: Nuts, seeds, whole grains
  • Chloride: Salt
  • Phosphate: Dairy, poultry, nuts, legumes

And if you’re supplementing? You might opt for electrolyte water, sports drinks, or supplements like sodium and calcium.

Need some recommendations? Coming right up…


The brands I use and recommend

Here are a few of my favourites. Just a note to say you should always take as per the packet says. Start slowly. Go to where feels good rather than trying to reach the ‘target dose’ on the packet. Tune in with how you feel. 

LMNT Recharge Electrolytes Variety Pack – 10% off code INTEGRAL

These electrolyte mixes are made with no artificial ingredients and contain a blend of sodium, magnesium, and potassium. 

Elete Electrolyte 

Elete Electrolyte can be used with water alone or added to any food or drink – and according to the company’s own research, it reduces the volume of water needed to hydrate by 40%.

Trace Minerals ConcenTrace Trace Mineral Drops – 10% off with INTEGRAL

These electrolyte drops are made with concentrated seawater and contain more than 72 trace minerals. 

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