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Effects of Dehydration & Electrolyte Imbalance


The human body is made up of 50-75% water depending on many factors such as age and bodily composition.   Since water is the primary building block of our cells it is no wonder that it has so many functions in our bodies.  Here are a few of the functions it helps us with on a daily basis:

  • Aids in regulating our temperature primarily through perspiration and respiration
  • Helps metabolize proteins and carbohydrates and aids in the digestion of the foods we eat
  • Lubricates our joints
  • Insulator of our brain, spinal cord and organs
  • Vital role in elimination of wastes and toxins

Electrolytes also play an important role in maintaining proper bodily function. They form ions in our bodily fluids so that they can carry the electrical messages necessary for muscle contraction and transmission of nerve impulses. Some important electrolytes include calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium and keeping them balanced in the right proportions allows your body to perform optimally without interruption.

Just because you aren’t thirsty doesn’t mean you aren’t dehydrated, and just because you aren’t cramping up doesn’t mean your electrolytes are balanced. It’s very important to be sure you’re drinking enough water every day to avoid dehydration.  The general rule that I tell my patients is to drink half of your body weight in ounces every day.  So for example, a 100 pound person would drink approximately 50 ounces a day.  It is equally as important to avoid electrolyte depletion. I see many conditions associated with dehydration and electrolyte imbalance on a regular basis, but most commonly would be headaches and muscle spasms.

Dehydration Headaches

To find out if you have a headache caused by dehydration think about what you have done in the past 24 hours. If you have exerted yourself physically, consumed alcohol, been in hot weather, or simply know you haven’t had enough water, your headache is likely caused by dehydration. Pain from dehydration headaches can be felt anywhere on your head and are typically made worse by moving. These headaches can develop multiple ways. One way is when the body doesn’t get enough water, the volume of blood decreases limiting the amount of oxygen-rich blood that reaches the brain, causing the pain. Another way is that when the brain is deprived of water it pulls away from the skull, triggering pain receptors in the membrane surrounding the brain. If you are not riding your body of harmful waste and toxins this too can trigger a headache.

Muscle Cramps and Spasms

Cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions of the muscles and can be minor or cause a lot of pain. They can be caused by overuse, holding a position for too long, and also dehydration or low electrolyte levels. This is because muscles need water and electrolytes to relax and contract properly but also keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. It is important to hydrate to avoid muscle cramps, especially when you are exercising and when it is hot outside.

Ways to Know You’re Dehydrated

  1. Skin test: pinch a bit of skin on the back of your hand. If it returns to its original state pretty slowly (it should take less than a second) then there is a good chance you are dehydrated.
  2. Urine test: checking your urine color can be an easy way to tell if you are dehydrated. A well hydrated person will have clear urine, whereas a dehydrated person would have urine that is a darker yellow or even orange. This is a sure sign to start drinking fluids immediately.

Tips for Staying Hydrated

  1. Drink plenty of water,  coconut water, or fruit juice. Avoid dehydrating beverages such as coffee, tea, soft drinks  and alcohol. If you don’t like plain water, spice it up with a lemon wedge or other natural flavor.
  2. Eat lots of fresh produce. Many fruits and vegetables have high water content so balancing your diet with a large amount of them can help you stay hydrated. Foods like watermelons, cucumbers, and strawberries have especially high amounts of water and they taste great!
  3. Drink more water with your meals. It will ensure you stay hydrated and also fill you up so you won’t have to overeat to feel full.

Replenishing Electrolytes

Especially during intensive endurance workouts, it is important to replenish your electrolytes in a slow and consistent matter. Too many electrolytes at once can overload the body and actually create worse problems. Some ways to naturally restore electrolyte levels include:

  1. Coconut water actually contains five key electrolytes: potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. This is probably one of the best things you can drink to maintain proper electrolyte levels in a balanced way during and after a workout.
  2. Eating yogurt or cheese is a great source of calcium.
  3. Sodium and chloride are both found in table salt, so adding a pinch to meals is an easy way to ensure these electrolytes are in balance. However, too much sodium can also be dangerous so limit high salt intake.
  4. Bananas are a great source of potassium and can sometimes help ease cramps.
  5. Nuts like almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts are not only brain food but also contain optimal amounts of magnesium. Goji berries are also high in magnesium and add great taste and texture to smoothies.
  6. Phosphorus can be found in many foods such as eggs, turkey, chicken, salmon, halibut, and whole wheat bread so cook up something delicious using these ingredients to balance out this electrolyte.

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