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Woman drinking electrolytes after a work out.

Signs you have an electrolyte imbalance

Electrolytes don’t make your body run, but they do make it run smoothly. Much like a battery in a car, these minerals in your blood and other body fluids stimulate voltages that carry electrical impulses – in the form of nerve impulses and muscle contractions – across your cells.

This electrical energy keeps your organs functioning properly. In fact, electrolytes help maintain optimum performance of your digestive, nervous, cardiac and muscular systems.

How the body regulates electrolytes

Your kidneys are the hub for electrolyte monitoring. They detect changes in your body from shifts in electrolyte levels.

Intense exercise is the most common way to lose electrolytes. The hotter the temperature and the more intense the exercise, the more water is lost.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, on average people lose 2 to 6 percent of their body weight during exercise sessions through sweating.

Another prime cause of electrolyte loss is when you have chronic vomiting or diarrhea. These fluids must be replaced to prevent dehydration and to keep essential body functions running properly.

Also, if you are an extreme exercise enthusiast, follow an intense exercise program, or if you have a medical condition that warrants close monitoring of your exercise and fluid intake, Edrea Jones, M.D., a nephrologist at Piedmont, recommends talking to your physician to ensure you know your limits and your fluid requirements.

"Staying hydrated is key to proper body function," says Dr. Jones.

Signs of electrolyte imbalance

When the amount of electrolytes in your body is too high or too low, you can develop:

  • Dizziness

  • Cramps

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Mental confusion

The most common sign of low electrolytes is muscle cramping, which can be excruciating and debilitating.

Maintaining electrolyte levels

The best way to keep electrolytes balanced in your body is by paying attention to your thirst. Dr. Jones recommends drinking about two cups of fluid two hours before any physical activity. Then, try to drink 4 to 6 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes during physical activity. Finally, have a drink after you finish exercising.

How to replenish electrolytes

Staying hydrated is key to maintaining a balance of electrolytes. Water is the most natural choice for hydration. It is less expensive and more available than any other drink.

Coconut water is another alternative for replenishing electrolytes. Coconut water is low on the glycemic index, so it won't dramatically affect your blood sugar. Studies have also shown that it may help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol — a heart-healthy reason to drink it.

However, sports drinks are often more appealing. Sports drinks contain electrolytes and carbohydrates, which replenish body energy. Many sports drinks have sodium chloride or potassium chloride added to them, which are major electrolytes lost when exercising. The added sugar and flavor in these drinks often entice people to drink a larger quantity compared to water.

Drinks to avoid

Carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks should all be avoided as hydration sources. They contain far too much sugar and empty calories. The carbohydrates in these drinks offer only short bursts of energy rather than long-term benefits.

“Staying well-hydrated benefits our bodies in so many intricate ways," says Dr. Jones. "Our bodies are extremely complex, and water is the center of life. That is why nobody can live more than three to five days without any water intake."

Get more health and wellness tips from Living Better.

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