What the devil is an electrolyte, and why do we need them? The main electrolytes in our body are calcium, chloride, magnesium, potassium, phosphate, and sodium. These nutrients, or chemicals, conduct electricity when dissolved in a liquid, like water. Our body is 70% water, and electrolytes are important in so many of our internal functions, from regulating our heartbeat to allowing our muscles to contract so we can move. They also interact with each other and the cells in all our tissues and nerves. One of their key functions involves balancing the body’s fluid levels. You may have heard the term “electrolyte imbalance,” which in most of us can be easily corrected, but in older adults this imbalance can become a serious issue.
We get electrolytes from the food we eat and from drinking certain fluids. We lose some electrolytes most commonly through sweating—usually from exercise or from being in a hot climate for an extended period of time, bowel movements and urinating. We might also develop an electrolyte imbalance when we are ill, especially if we have a stomach issue causing diarrhea and/or vomiting.
For healthy, active children and adults, an electrolyte imbalance is easily remedied by drinking more water and adding in a few electrolyte-rich foods. If following the KETO diet, electrolyte imbalance can happen because of exaggerated water loss. If illness is the cause, adding a few glasses of the house-made electrolyte drink (see recipe below) will put you right in just a short time. Seniors, on the other hand, may have developed a more severe case of imbalance due to a poor diet low in nutrients or whole foods, researchers sometimes refer to as “the tea and toast diet,” too little exercise, and not drinking enough water. Some of the causes outside a senior’s control that can also cause electrolyte problems include:
- Kidney disease
- Congestive heart failure
- Some drugs: diuretics, ACE inhibitors, some antipsychotic drugs and anti-depressants
- Cancer treatments
- Intestinal or digestive issues (trouble absorbing nutrients from food)
Your doctor can easily include an electrolyte panel as part of a routine physical exam, as part of a range of tests, or it can be performed on its own. Check in with your doctor if you have any concerns.
As we get older our kidneys become less efficient, which can lead to frequent urination, and so we pee out the electrolytes we need. This inefficiency can also result in painful urination or incontinence. Many people try to avoid these occurrences by not drinking liquids, but that only makes the problem worse.
The most common electrolytes to go out of balance are potassium, calcium, and magnesium. A deficiency in these doesn’t show up right away but develops gradually. Some of the signs of low electrolytes? Here is a quick list to think about:
- Are you feeling particularly fatigued?
- Do you feel particularly anxious or are having trouble sleeping?
- Do you have weakness or spasms in your muscles?
- More headaches?
- Having a change in bowel movements?
- Do you feel abnormal sensations on your skin?
Any, or all, of these can be an indicator of a low electrolytes. A growing concern among older adults is also the over-use of laxatives and certain antacids. Constipation (from poor diet and lack of water) is a very common complaint, and many people self-treat this with laxatives, when adding whole high fiber and nutrient-dense foods and drinking enough water will go a long way toward correcting the problem.
To prevent electrolyte imbalance and always be well hydrated, strive to eat whole, unpackaged, unprocessed foods. Some of the best choices include dark leafy green veggies, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes or squash, bananas (in moderation due to their high sugar content) and avocados. Unprocessed hydrating foods also packed with electrolytes: celery, watermelon, cucumber, kiwi, bell peppers, citrus fruits, and pineapple. If you find yourself low in a particular electrolyte here is a short list of foods to add into your eating plan.
- For chloride: low-sodium tomato juice (or fresh!), lettuce, olives
- For calcium: collard greens, spinach, kale, sardines
- For potassium: potatoes with skin, plain yogurt, the occasional banana
- For Magnesium: halibut, pumpkin seeds, spinach
Lastly, drink water! If you are drinking enough you should need to find the ladies room every three to four hours, which translates for most folks, into eight-ten 8 ounce glasses of clean, good quality water every day.
Here is a great low sugar, non-chemical recipe for an electrolyte replacement drink.
Yield 4 cups (946 ml), serving size 1 cup (237 ml)
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 ½ cups (360 ml) unsweetened coconut water
- 2 cups (480 ml) cold, filtered water
All of us need to keep an eye on our electrolyte balance. Be especially mindful of our older loved ones to make sure they, too, are well hydrated and replacing those important nutrients we all need to stay vibrant!
Until next time…Be Vibrant!