Because of their wide-ranging physiological importance, electrolyte deficiencies or imbalances can have very serious consequences, ranging from fatigue and muscle cramps to death. In fact, electrolytes are so important that an injection of the right amount of potassium can stop the heart dead in its tracks!
Generally speaking, minor electrolyte imbalances are not very symptomatic. Most people can display no symptoms and still have slightly elevated or diminished levels of most electrolytes on a blood test.
However, if an electrolyte imbalance escalates to the point that it becomes significant, it can be deadly. Because electrolytes play such critical roles in the nervous and cardiovascular systems, many of the symptoms of imbalance or depletion affect these same parts of the body.
In most cases, you will know there is something wrong because you will feel absolutely awful. The most common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include muscle cramps, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, flu-like symptoms, digestive issues, confusion or brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, and dizziness.
Fortunately, these symptoms will generally abate if an imbalance is caught and managed early; however, if it goes untreated, an electrolyte imbalance can cause serious long-term problems, including bone mineral loss (osteoporosis) and irreversible heart and brain damage.
How to fix it:
Don’t Reach for a Standard Sports Drink
I don’t think anyone should ever consume the sugary sports drinks that line the shelves of your average grocery store or corner bodega.
All of the electrolyte-replacement products on the market today, ironically, do not contain sufficient levels of key electrolytes and are just packed with sugar. It’s best to ignore the catchy marketing campaigns, famous athletes’ endorsement deals, and the sponsorships at sporting events big and small—these drinks are not your friend and should be avoided at all costs!
Tweak Your Diet
Minor electrolyte imbalances can generally be corrected by focusing on optimizing the foods you consume on a daily basis. Ensuring your diet is filled with unpackaged, whole foods that deliver a healthy dose of essential nutrients, including electrolytes, can go a long way towards reversing an electrolyte imbalance.
Above-ground leafy vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, bananas, and avocados are rich in potassium and magnesium, while beans and probiotic dairy are a great source of calcium.
If you can’t indulge in a mainstream sports drink, where should you turn to supplement electrolytes? I asked myself this very same question and answering it led me to be shoulder deep in my pantry mixing up homebrew electrolyte concoctions.