Flagging Electrolytes Can Mean Big Trouble

Electrolytes are the minerals — the most important are sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride, bicarbonate and phosphate — which dissolve in your bodily fluids to create positively and negatively charged ions. They’re essential for regulating blood pressure, nerve and muscular function, cell health and fluid levels.

We obtain most of our electrolytes from water, so deficiencies often are tied directly to dehydration and the symptoms can be similar.

It can be difficult to distinguish between dehydration and an electrolyte deficiency unless some symptoms persist after you consume enough water or other electrolyte-rich drinks or food, but there are some potential signs you can watch for:

  • Nausea and vomiting — Hyponatremia, or low sodium level, occurs when the sodium in your body is diluted, leading to excess water retention. It can be caused by kidney disease or another underlying condition, as well as certain medications and drinking too much water.

This scenario is rare but can happen to athletes during marathons or other endurance activities. Other symptoms include confusion and loss of energy and electrolyte deficiency can lead to seizures or coma.

  • Fatigue — Fatigue is one of the most common indicators of dehydration; it can persist if you aren’t getting enough magnesium, which among many other things helps convert glucose into energy. Magnesium is found in many good-for-you foods including dark leafy greens, seafood, poultry, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
  • Irregular or slow heartbeat — Potassium could be the culprit here, as it helps to propel the electrical pulses that maintain your heart rate as well as muscle contractions and brain function. Moderate-to-severe potassium deficiency can lead to a slowed heart rate or even cardiac arrest. Foods high in this mineral include citrus, bananas, white beans and potatoes.
  • Tingling in feet and fingers — Calcium is found mostly in your bones but is key for many other processes including blood clotting, muscle contraction, enzyme regulation and maintaining a steady heart rate. A deficiency is often related to low vitamin D levels and can cause minor symptoms such as tingly sensations or major ones like arrhythmia or seizures.