Electrolytes 101: The Importance of Electrolytes and Why You Need Them on Keto

If you’ve watched a sporting event in the last 30 years, you’re probably most familiar with the term electrolytes from ads promoting sports drinks. But these nutrients do more than keep you hydrated after breaking a sweat. Electrolytes are essential to many of our bodies processes and are important to be aware of for any healthy lifestyle, including if you choose keto. 

Consider this article your primer on all things electrolytes. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What electrolytes are and what do they do
  • How the ketogenic diet impacts electrolyte balance
  • Key electrolytes on keto: where to find them and signs you might need more
  • Food and supplemental sources of electrolytes

The Power of Lytes

Electrolytes (or lytes for short) are minerals in the body that get their name from the electrical charge they carry. 

Within the body, electrolytes play many important roles, including:

  • Maintaining healthy fluid balance
  • Helping involuntary muscles run smoothly (this includes keeping your heart beating and digestive tract moving)
  • Carrying nerve impulses
  • Balancing the body’s pH level (also known as acid/base balance)
  • Moving nutrients into cells and taking waste out

You’ve likely heard of most of these minerals before and not realized they fall into the category of electrolytes: calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, chloride and phosphate .For your body to be performing at its best, each of these electrolytes need to stay withina tightly controlled range. Concentrations that are too high or too low can result in you feeling sluggish, suffering from headaches and other more serious health problems. 

There are several factors that influence you body’s electrolyte balance including your diet, any medications you might be taking, your kidney function and any fluid losses you might be experiencing (ex. sweating during a workout, vomiting when you’re sick, diarrhea, etc.).

The Keto Diet and Electrolyte Balance

The keto diet causes major metabolic changes within the body. The shift from burning carbs to burning fat for energy is the hallmark of ketosis and the reason that many experience weight loss and boosts in energy and cognitive health. But that initial weight loss isn’t only fat – in fact, much of it is water due to changes in fluid balance. 

Fluctuations in fluid balance with the keto diet can be attributed to a few things:

    1. Reduction of circulating and stored carbohydrates. As carbohydrates in the diet are reduced, the body will start depleting glycogen, the storage form of sugar, for energy. Glycogen is kept in the muscles and liver and is stored with water. As glycogen gets used up, the water its stored with is also released.  
    2. Changes in insulin. With a lower carb diet, the body produces less insulin (the hormone that manages blood sugar). When insulin levels start to drop, more sodium and fluid are excreted through the kidneys
  • Cooling of inflammation. A cardinal sign of inflammation is swelling. The ketogenic diet is known to support a healthy inflammatory response. As inflammation cools, swelling is reduced. 
  • As fluid leaves the body, the electrolytes sodium, potassium and magnesium are reduced as well. That is why these specific electrolytes are an important focus of a healthy ketogenic lifestyle. 

    Key Electrolytes on Keto: Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium

    Importance of Electrolytes

    Sodium

    Processed foods and restaurant foods contribute the largest proportion of sodium to a typical American diet. So, it’s not surprising that sodium intake is naturally reduced on a keto diet where most highly-processed foods are avoided and restaurant choices are limited. 

    What Does It Do?

    Sodium is essential for human health and is required for normal cell function, fluid balance and nerve impulse transmission. 

    How Much is Recommended? 

    For healthy individuals not on a low carb diet, normal sodium intake should be less than 2300 mg per day. On a keto diet, sodium recommendations increase to 3-5g daily

    Signs You May Need More

    Hyponatremia is a fancy word for low blood sodium and can be a very serious condition. Some signs of low sodium include:

    • Craving salt
    • Headache
    • Muscle weakness
    • Fatigue
    • Confusion
    • Irritability
    • Restlessness

    Signs You May Need Less

     

    Keto-Friendly Food Sources 

    Table salt is a mixture of sodium and chloride. One teaspoon (roughly the size of a thumbnail) provides approximately 2300 mg. Other keto-friendly food sources of sodium include broth, unsweetened coconut water, low carb condiments like hot sauce and salad dressing, pickles, olives, salted snacks like nuts, seeds & kale chips, jerky (look for wild raised/caught and nitrate free), cheese and snacks with cheese.

    Importance of Electrolytes, Foods to Eat With SodiumNutrient Information Sourced from the USDA Food Composition Database

    Potassium

    What Does It Do?

    Potassium resides largely within the cell. Think of potassium as an effective bouncer at your favorite concert – its star role in good health is stewarding nutrients in and waste products out of the cell. But that’s not potassium’s only job, it also helps the heartbeat stay regular and balance the impact of too much sodium in the diet. 

    How Much is Recommended?

    Potassium needs vary based on age, sex and life stage. For example, pregnant and lactating women have different needs than women of their same age. Healthy adults need approximately 2600 mg (women) – 3400 mg (men) per day. Most people in the US do not get enough potassium, even when consuming potassium-rich foods and taking supplements that include potassium. 

    Signs You May Need More

    The fancy word for low potassium is hypokalemia, initial side effects are mild but can progress to more serious complications if not addressed.

    • Increase in blood pressure
    • Muscle cramps
    • Constipation
    • Muscle weakness
    • Fatigue

    Signs You May Need Less

    In healthy adults with normal kidney function, excess dietary potassium is typically not an issue as the kidneys do a great job of filtering out excess.

    Keto-Friendly Food Sources 

    Many foods are great sources of potassium including non-starchy, low-carb vegetables, nuts, seeds and animal proteins like chicken, beef and fish.  

    Importance of Electrolytes, Foods to Eat for Potassium

    Nutrient Information Sourced from the USDA Food Composition Database

    Magnesium

    What Does It Do?

    Magnesium is required for healthy nerve and muscle function, maintenance of the immune system, strong bones, stable blood sugar and blood pressure.

    How Much is Recommended?

    Magnesium needs vary based on age and life stage. Healthy adults need between 310 mg (females) – 420 mg (males).

    Signs You May Need More

    It is rare for healthy adults to be truly deficient in magnesium. Deficiency is more likely in those with malabsorption, type II diabetes and older adults. Symptoms of low magnesium are mild but get more severe with progressive deficiency and can be serious. 

    • Muscle cramps
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle weakness
    • Sleeplessness
    • Nausea
    • Loss of appetite
    • Numbness & tingling

    Signs You May Need Less

    Too much magnesium from foods sources is unlikely in healthy individuals as the kidneys are able to filter out excess magnesium. From supplements, too much magnesium can cause digestive distress like cramping, gas and diarrhea. Extremely high supplemental doses can have serious consequences like irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing and low blood pressure.

    Keto-Friendly Food Sources

    The best low carb food sources of magnesium are avocadoes, nuts, seeds, cacao powder and tofu.

    Importance of Electrolytes, Foods to Eat for Magnesium

    Nutrient Information Sourced from the USDA Food Composition Database

    Supplemental Sources of Electrolytes

    Electrolyte supplements are widely available and can be a useful tool in a well-planned ketogenic diet. They typically come in tablets or drops to add to water, include a variety of electrolyte minerals, and should contain minimal carbohydrates. 

    If you have a hard time getting in enough sodium, potassium or magnesium through foods, adding an electrolyte supplement is a safe and effective way to get what you need. Be sure to read the package directions and follow them closely – it is possible to have too much of a good thing. 

    Fluids and Electrolytes: A Recipe for Success

    A well-designed ketogenic diet should include plenty of fluids to replace what you lose as your carbohydrate stores are depleted as well as plenty of  electrolytes in the form of foods or supplements. 

    Fluids should include mostly caffeine-free, unsweetened beverages like water, coconut water, plant-based milks, broths and herbal tea. In general, two liters of fluid per day is a good starting point. Larger or highly active individuals may need more. If urine is dark, drink more – lighter urine is a sign of good hydration. 

    Your electrolyte balance can be maintained by regularly including foods that are high in sodium, potassium and magnesium in your diet. You may even come up with some meals and snacks that incorporate foods rich in all three like a spinach (potassium, magnesium) salad with salmon (potassium), pumpkin seeds (magnesium) and topped with a vinaigrette dressing (sodium). 

    If you’re concerned about your electrolyte balance, a supplement may be useful. Follow the package instructions closely and speak to your health care provider if you have any special medical considerations.

     

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