What Are Electrolytes?

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A man drinking an electrolyte drink on their run

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Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals found in blood, sweat, and urine. These minerals help regulate the nervous system, hydration, muscle function, and blood pH.

When you sweat, your body loses electrolytes that can only be replaced by eating or drinking items with electrolytes. The most common electrolytes include: 

What Do Electrolytes Do?

You need different electrolytes to keep your brain and muscles functioning. Bodily functions electrolytes help regulate include:  

  • Nervous system signals: Sodium helps send nervous impulses, or electrical signals your brain sends through nerve cells to give your cells operating instructions. Magnesium also helps your brain function.
  • Muscle Contractions: Calcium helps muscles contract, while magnesium helps muscles relax.
  • Hydration: Electrolytes like sodium help balance the water inside and outside your cells through osmosis—when water moves through the cell membrane to control the dilution of water and electrolytes. This helps prevent cells from bursting or dehydrating. 
  • pH levels: Electrolytes help the body regulate its internal pH (how acidic or alkaline something is). Different parts of the body, like the blood, must maintain a certain pH to eliminate disease and function properly.

The body can't make the majority of electrolytes on its own, so you must consume them. (Your body can only naturally produce the electrolyte bicarbonate.) Fruits and vegetables are the primary sources of electrolytes. You can also get essential electrolytes like sodium and chloride from table salt. Food sources of electrolytes include: 

  • Sodium: Salt, cheese, pickled foods
  • Chloride: Salt
  • Potassium: Beet greens, lima beans, sweet potato, bananas, avocado
  • Magnesium: Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, boiled spinach, peanuts
  • Calcium: Dairy products, fortified grains, green leafy vegetables

Typically eating food with electrolytes is enough to support the average person. Still, electrolyte sports drinks and salt-enhanced drinks can also help supplement electrolytes. These drinks can help you rehydrate quickly and add much-needed electrolytes if you've lost excessive electrolytes through intense exercise, vomiting, or diarrhea.

However, regular workouts the average person completes don't typically require additional electrolyte drinks to help you balance your electrolytes. Supplementing electrolytes may cause abnormal levels and health issues if you already have normal electrolyte levels.

How Do You Test Electrolyte Levels?

You can have your electrolyte levels tested with blood or urine test. A basic metabolic blood panel measures serum levels (part of your blood without cells) of sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium. A comprehensive metabolic blood panel can test for additional electrolytes. An electrolytes urine test can measure the levels of electrolytes like calcium, chloride, potassium, and sodium.

Normal ranges of electrolytes include:

  • Serum sodium: 135 to 145 millimole/Liter
  • Serum potassium: 3.6 to 5.5 millimole/Liter
  • Serum calcium: 8.8 to 10.7 milligram/deciliter
  • Serum magnesium: 1.46 to 2.68 milligram/deciliter
  • Bicarbonate: 23 to 30 millimole/Liter
  • Phosphorus: 3.4 to 4.5 milligram/deciliter

Levels under or above these amounts are considered abnormal, but ranges may vary.

What Is an Electrolyte Imbalance?

An electrolyte imbalance is when you have too much or too little electrolytes in your blood. This imbalance can make it difficult for your brain and muscles to function. In rare cases, a severe electrolyte imbalance can be life-threatening.

Hyponatremia, low sodium levels, is the most common type of electrolyte imbalance. Other types of electrolyte imbalances people typically experience include:

  • High sodium levels (hypernatremia)
  • High or low potassium levels(hyperkalemia or hypokalemia)
  • High or low calcium levels (hypercalcemia or hypocalcemia)
  • High or low magnesium levels (hypermagnesemia or hypomagnesemia) 


Dehydration caused by excess sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea is the leading cause of electrolyte imbalance. Rapidly losing sweat in hot weather or losing body fluids when you're sick quickly depletes your body of electrolytes, often before you can replace them.

Injuries and medical conditions can also cause electrolyte imbalances, including:

  • Kidney disease
  • Eating disorders 
  • Substance use
  • Cancer
  • Sepsis
  • Liver disease
  • Lung conditions
  • Gastrointestinal tract conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Severe burns
  • Recent surgery

Critically ill people and older adults are more likely to experience electrolyte imbalances. Diets low in sources of electrolytes also increase someone's risk of developing an electrolyte imbalance. 


Electrolyte imbalance symptoms will vary depending on which electrolytes are affected and the level of the imbalance. Electrolyte imbalances can cause cardiac, muscular, and neurological symptoms like:  

In severe cases of electrolyte imbalances, folks can deal with serious health problems like:

  • Irregular heartbeat  
  • Seizures
  • Death 

Treatment Options

Mild electrolyte imbalances can be treated by eating electrolyte foods or supplementing with electrolyte drinks. For example, say you are sweating during an intense hike in hot weather and losing electrolytes like sodium. Eating salty snacks and drinking water can help you replenish depleted sodium levels and rehydrate.

Moderate to severe electrolyte imbalances will require additional treatments more catered to what's causing the imbalance. Treatments may include:

  • Altering hydration levels: Folks may be given intravenous (IV) fluids if they're dehydrated. If someone is over-hydrated, they may need to take diuretics to get rid of extra fluid when they pee. 
  • Supplementing electrolytes: Oral or IV electrolyte supplements can help restore levels. Other folks may be prescribed a specific diet to boost their intake of certain electrolytes.
  • Treating underlying medical conditions: If a medical condition is causing an electrolyte imbalance, your healthcare provider will treat the condition. This may also involve switching your medications if they affect your electrolyte balance.

Folks with a severe electrolyte imbalance will be monitored and receive additional testing to ensure their electrolyte levels return to normal.

You can also take preventative measures to avoid an electrolyte imbalance in the first place. The best ways to prevent an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet
  • Staying hydrated
  • Drinking fluids with extra electrolytes if vomiting or experiencing diarrhea
  • Drinking fluids with extra electrolytes in extreme heat or prolonged endurance activities
  • Not drinking too many fluids, or electrolyte drinks, when already hydrated

A Quick Review

Electrolytes are minerals with positive or negative charges like sodium, calcium, and potassium. Your body needs electrolytes for brain function, muscle contractions, and managing blood pH. Electrolytes are also important for hydration, and most electrolytes come from food.

If your electrolyte levels get too high or low, an electrolyte imbalance can cause dangerous neurological, cardiovascular, and muscular health issues. Typically, dehydration from heat or illness causes an electrolyte imbalance, which can be remedied by eating electrolyte foods and hydrating.

Medical conditions like kidney and liver disease can also cause an electrolyte imbalance. An electrolyte imbalance can make you feel weak, nauseous, and disoriented. If you suspect you have an electrolyte balance, your healthcare provider can offer you an electrolyte levels test. 

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14 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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