Dear Doctors: My husband was given a small jar of an electrolyte powder by a friend and has decided to take it on a daily basis. He is 76 years old, sedentary, a bit overweight and has high blood pressure. Might taking electrolytes cause him problems?
Dear Reader: Electrolytes are minerals that, when dissolved in liquid, carry an electric charge. The main electrolytes are potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphate, chloride and bicarbonates. They are found dissolved in blood, lymph, urine, sweat and other bodily fluids.
Many of the body's automatic functions, which you need to survive, are powered by a small electric current. That's where electrolytes come into play. The charge they provide is vital for proper nerve and muscle function, maintaining cardiac rate and rhythm, moving nutrients and waste across cell membranes, and managing blood pressure. Electrolytes also keep an optimal fluid balance in the body and maintain the proper pH level in the tissues and bodily fluids. That's extremely important, considering the human body is about 60% water.
You can get the electrolytes you need by eating a balanced diet. Minerals are found in vegetables, leafy greens, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products, certain fish and seafood, and lean meats. Unless specifically fortified, like some breakfast cereals, you won't find electrolytes in processed and ultra-processed foods, which lean hard into sugar, salt, fat and refined carbohydrates.
We lose electrolytes in sweat and excrete them in urine. But unless you're engaged in prolonged or intense physical activity, the daily intake from a healthy diet balances out the loss. Electrolytes are also lost through vomiting or diarrhea. If either are excessive or prolonged, it can cause an imbalance. This is particularly true in children. In older adults, the ability to absorb and excrete certain electrolytes, including sodium, can wane. This can adversely affect fluid balance.
Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include fatigue, headache, nausea, muscle cramps or spasms, heart arrythmia, changing blood pressure, numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes, irritability and confusion. Diagnosis is with a simple urine or blood test, which can pinpoint the specific cause. Treatment focuses on replenishing missing electrolytes via supplements, medications and, in acute cases, IV fluids. The patient will also be counseled about diet.
When it comes to electrolyte powders, we have found quite a bit of variability in their composition. Some contain a lot of sugar, both real and artificial, and can also include additives that are not necessarily beneficial. Depending on the specific product, it is possible to inadvertently skew your electrolyte balance. If using one of these supplements leads to side effects such as swelling of the feet or ankles, dizziness, unusual weakness and changes to mood, it is wise to discontinue its use.
In the absence of the type of intense physical activity that leads to a copious loss of electrolytes through sweat, we advise leaving the powders, as well as the liquid supplements, alone. Unless your husband has been diagnosed with an electrolyte imbalance, staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet will provide the electrolytes his body needs.
(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)