Are Electrolytes To Blame For Your Headaches & Dizziness? Here's Everything You Need To Know

Photo: Vera Lair

Appropriate nutrition and electrolyte replacement are two essential prerequisites to feeling and performing well.

It’s likely that you’ve experienced the important role of electrolytes many times in your life—even if you didn't realize it. If you’ve ever pedaled through a long bike ride or powered through a half-marathon battling symptoms like headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or muscle spasms, then you already know all about electrolyte imbalances.

These symptoms usually occur after we profusely sweat for more than 90 minutes, which causes our bodies to lose water and important electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and chloride. The best way to handle the loss of fluids and electrolytes during physical activity is to stay hydrated and use electrolyte replacements. Let's dive into the research on the incredible ways electrolytes affect our bodies and explore how to make sure we're getting enough of them for our activity level.

Why are electrolytes so important to the body?

Electrolytes help balance fluid levels and are associated with healthy heart function, a sharp mind, proper muscle contraction, and so much more. On the flip side, low levels of various electrolytes can lead to imbalances that cause changes in heartbeat, muscle spasms, digestive issues, dizziness, and more. Eating a balanced diet and replacing electrolytes after prolonged exercise or excessive urination should be enough to keep your levels in check.

Once you consume electrolytes, they will likely travel to the kidneys, where they are filtered through to the bloodstream. The kidneys filter out electrolytes and water by using what's known as a concentration gradient. Excess water flows into the kidney, which upsets the balance and forces the electrolytes out into a nearby blood vessel to be circulated through the body. Then some water and waste stay in the kidney to be excreted through the urine while the electrolytes and some water flow through the blood.

From there, electrolytes rely on the gastrointestinal tract for absorption and water homeostasis. Therefore, a healthy gut can promote electrolyte balance (and a host of other health benefits). A healthy gut barrier is flexible enough to allow electrolytes to pass through but strong enough to protect the GI system from food particles and pathogenic bacteria.

What are the different kinds of electrolytes?

Potassium, sodium, and chloride are the three most important electrolytes. Other biggies include magnesium, calcium, and phosphate. These micronutrients are all salts that form ions in water and are capable of conducting electricity, meaning they actually have an electric charge. Approximately two-thirds of the body’s fluids live inside the body’s cells, which is where potassium is most abundant. The other one-third of fluids live outside of the cells, and this is where sodium and chloride reside.

You’ll find these different electricity-conducting compounds in sports drinks, sports gels, and, of course, in whole foods. Play around with different electrolyte sources to ensure that you're getting adequate amounts in an enjoyable, palatable way.

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What do the different electrolytes do?

Sodium

Given the excess of sodium-laden processed foods in the average Western diet, it should come as no surprise that most of us are not at risk of sodium deprivation. While too much sodium is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and stroke, a normal level of sodium is imperative for health. Sodium contributes to the regulation of blood volume, blood pressure, pH, osmotic equilibrium between cells, and the maintenance of water balance in the body. Sodium is also important for neurons, proper muscle function, energy metabolism, and cardiovascular function. Beware: You may be at risk for low levels of sodium after prolonged exercise. (This is also known as exercise-associated hyponatremia.) It happens when people overhydrate without proper electrolyte replacement and can lead to nausea, vomiting, confusion, headaches, and even seizures.

Be sure to keep your levels at that sweet spot by avoiding more than 600 milligrams of sodium per meal and seeking out a good electrolyte replacement for long workouts.

Potassium

Potassium is an essential dietary mineral and electrolyte that promotes proper nerve transmission, muscle contractions, and glucose metabolism. Potassium works closely with sodium to maintain proper balance in the body; it controls the amount of fluid inside our cells while sodium maintains this balance outside the cells. A diet high in potassium helps soften the blow of a high-sodium diet by lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Deficiencies in potassium can lead to an increase in blood pressure, increased salt sensitivity, higher risk of kidney stones, and increased bone turnover. Severe deficiencies have been shown to increase risk of cardiac arrhythmias, muscle weakness, and glucose intolerance.

Make a conscious effort to work a variety of sources of potassium into your diet each day using a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits.

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Chloride

As is the case with sodium, most of us in the United States don't need to worry about chloride levels. Chloride comprises 60 percent of table salt to sodium's 40 percent. Once it makes its way inside the body, chloride serves many important functions including controlling blood pressure levels, ensuring proper electrolyte and fluid balance, and regulating the pH balance of the blood.

Quick and tasty sources of electrolytes.

Here are a few ideas for quick superfood snacks to have on hand after a long workout (or even a long day) to keep your electrolyte levels in check:

1. Baked potato with Himalayan salt.

Just 1 cup of baked potato contains 1,000 milligrams of potassium, compared to a surprisingly low 500 milligrams of potassium found in sweet potatoes. Combine the potassium-loaded baked potato with Himalayan salt for some extra sodium and chloride.

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2. Dried apricots and grass-fed jerky.

Scoop up a handful of 10 dried apricots, and you've got yourself 814 milligrams of potassium. Balance it out with sodium and chloride in the form of grass-fed jerky. Check out Steve’s Paleo Goods Grass-Fed Beef Jerky, which is grass-fed and grass-finished.

3. Avocado with tamari sauce and lemon.

This genius snack is loaded with all the electrolyte all-stars! Cut an avocado in half and top with tamari (gluten-free soy sauce) and lemon juice for an electrolyte-rich afternoon snack.

4. Kelp leaves.

This sea veggie is loaded with sodium, potassium, and chloride in addition to other electrolytes like magnesium and calcium. Organic, whole kelp leaves are basically nutrient powerhouses.

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5. Coconut water and Himalayan salt.

Your body will thank you for rehydrating with this potassium-rich drink. Coconut water doesn't contain sodium, though, so add some Himalayan salt to balance things out. Fun fact: One 2012 study showed that the sweat we let out during strenuous activity has more sodium than potassium, so coconut water is therefore recommended for people who participate in less-strenuous activity. If you are doing higher levels of activity, really go heavy with that salt.

6. Nutrient-packed soup.

Soups get a bad rap for being a processed source of excess sodium. But FAWEN is one brand that's serving up minimally processed soups packed with nutrients. Their organic, ready-to-drink soups are filled with broccoli, cauliflower, coconut water concentrate, and Himalayan salt. The broccoli-and-cauliflower variety is packed with 430 milligrams of potassium and about 300 milligrams of sodium and chloride.

7. Drinkable veggies.

Bona Fide Provisions Drinkable Veggies combine the sodium and gut-healing benefits from bone broth with the potassium-rich properties of carrot juice. Bone broth meets vegetable juice? Talk about an electrolyte gut-health dream.

Got questions about the keto diet? Brigid's got answers!

Brynn Scheinberg contributed reporting to this story.

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