Electrolytes: What are they and why are they important?
What are electrolytes?
Found on the labels of many a sports drink and mentioned wherever there is talk of hydration, "electrolytes" is a household term these days. Most of people have some idea of what they do; we tend to seek them out if we're being active because of their association with exercise. But what are they, and how do they relate to Keto?
Electrolytes are electrically charged mineral compounds that occur naturally in many foods (or are artificially added to man-made supplements). The charge is where the "electro-" in the word comes from. When broken down through digestion or dissolved into a glass of water, these compounds dissociate into positively or negatively charged particles, or ions. Electrolytes are held together by ionic (electric) bonds, based on the law that positive and negative charges attract.
For example, let's look at a very common mineral known as salt. Salt is comprised of sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl) atoms. In its solid form, ionic bonds hold it together in the form of crystals. When you digest it, the positively charged sodium (Na+) and negatively charged chloride ions (Cl-) separate and then get absorbed by your system.
What do they do?
Sodium and chloride are just two essential electrolytes. Along with potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, they keep multiple systems in your body working properly.
Some of the functions electrolytes perform are: regulating fluid levels in all your cells, stimulating muscle cells for contraction during exercise and normal movement, keeping the muscles of the heart contracting at a regular rhythm, and making it possible for neurons to communicate with each other in every single function of the brain.
This is why exercise and electrolytes go hand-in-hand. They're necessary for all things physical. During heavier exertion, they're expelled from the body and lost in the form of sweat. When drinking lots of plain water, like many people do on hot days and during strenuous activities, they get "flushed" out through urination. Unless they're soon replenished, an electrolyte deficiency may occur.
Symptoms of Electrolyte Deficiency
If you're not getting enough electrolytes, your body can react badly. Irregular heartbeat, or a heartbeat that's much faster than normal, is one of the more dangerous consequences. Muscle twitching, muscle convulsions, or even outright seizures can also happen. Vomiting and diarrhea are a couple more; these can cause further loss of electrolytes and further disruptions.
Some other negative effects include headache, fluid retention, nausea, irritability, brain fog, and fatigue.
Electrolytes and Keto
You may recognize some of the symptoms listed above from descriptions of the keto flu. Indeed, the Keto Diet can change your electrolyte levels as you lose weight. That's why it's important to maintain awareness of your electrolyte intake.
When transitioning away from processing carbs, the body goes through some changes that are uncomfortable yet temporary -- that's why the Keto community uses the word "flu" to describe them. When carbohydrates get cut, insulin levels drop as well (insulin is a hormone that helps the cells absorb blood sugar after processing carbs). When insulin levels drop, the kidneys excrete -- or lose -- a lot of sodium. If sodium is reduced, it affects the balance of electrolytes in other systems.
How much electrolytes do you need on Keto?
When losing weight in ketosis, the three most important electrolytes to watch are sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Typically, you'll need what's considered a normal, healthy intake of magnesium. That's 310 -420 mg every day. Muscle cramps indicate you're probably not getting enough, so increase if that's the case.
Your sodium could be low on Keto due to those aforementioned changes in insulin. Counter to some other diets, it's recommended to increase your sodium intake while doing Keto. Many find that 3000 - 5000 mg is an ideal range. This is a bit different from the "under 2300" guideline that many try to follow, but it's important to compensate for the sodium excreted by the kidneys and lost during ketosis.
Potassium is found in a lot of Keto-friendly foods such as avocados, nuts, and leafy greens. (Avoid bananas; they're not Keto-approved!) A good range to stay within is 3000 - 4000 mg per day. Most people, in fact, do not get enough potassium from their diets, even while eating relatively healthy. That's why many, especially followers of Keto, are turning to supplements.
Adding electrolytes to your diet
When it comes to beating the keto flu, it's most important to make sure you're following the Keto guidelines. Eating from the extensive list of awesome, Keto-friendly foods will provide you with a variety of nutrients, not just electrolytes. Supplements, however, are super common. They make it much easier to ensure you're getting enough, especially when it comes to potassium.
Nutritional supplements can be found just about everywhere food is sold, so they're easy to come by. There are affordable options for pre-made electrolyte rich mixes; here's one the Keto community is particularly fond of. Low Salt Mix can be added to any food you'd normally add salt to, and it contains the essentials.
Another popular method is to make your own ketoade from Low Salt Mix. Ketoade is a DIY drink that keeps you hydrated and is very easy to make.
- 1/4 tsp Low Salt Mix
- 1/4 tsp regular table salt
- 1 glass (240 ml) water
- fresh lemon juice or sugar-free flavoring to taste
There's no need to stress about getting sufficient electrolytes when on Keto. It's easy to stay healthy with supplements and watching your intake. Most importantly, pay attention to how your body is responding to ketosis and ask a health professional about your concerns with keeping it safe.