The first step to correcting an electrolyte imbalance is to identify how it developed in the first place. For many people, a poor diet that’s high in processed foods containing lots of sodium, but low in other electrolytes like magnesium or potassium, paves the way for a dangerous imbalance. In many cases, a minor electrolyte imbalance can be corrected by simply making dietary changes and cutting way back on junk foods, takeout and restaurant foods, while instead cooking more fresh foods at home.
Plenty of vegetables and fruits that provide potassium and magnesium, leafy greens, cruciferous veggies like broccoli or cabbage, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or squash, bananas, and avocados. A diet that’s rich in magnesium or potassium likely can be enough to solve problems like low potassium levels that can lead to blood pressure problems or magnesium deficiency that can contribute to anxiety, restlessness and muscle cramps.
To prevent dehydration and restore electrolytes, focus on these foods — which are some of the most hydrating due to being very water-dense:
Another thing to consider is whether you’re consuming enough calcium. With or without eating dairy products, it’s possible to get calcium from leafy greens, other veggies, beans and legumes. To obtain enough calcium naturally without needing supplements, consider adding high-quality and ideally raw dairy products to your diet if you can tolerate them. Foods like organic probiotic yogurt, cultured raw cheeses and raw milk provide high levels of electrolytes in addition to other important nutrients.
2. Monitor Your Sodium Intake
When you do consume packaged or processed foods, check the sodium levels. Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a significant part in the body’s ability to retain or release water, so if your diet is very high in sodium, more water is excreted by the kidneys, and this can cause complications with balancing other electrolytes.
Here’s how sodium works within the body: Essentially, water follows salt, which means if you increase sodium too much, water retention also occurs. At the same time, the opposite is also true: A loss in sodium results in a loss in water, potentially causing dehydration and extreme thirst. Hypernatremia (the name of the condition that develops when either too much water is lost or too much sodium is obtained) is more common among older adults, people with diabetes and those who eat heavily processed diets. People can also lose a high level of sodium through diarrhea, taking certain diuretics or laxatives, and exercising to extreme levels and overtraining without staying hydrated — all of which cause problems of their own.
Monitoring how much sodium you consume helps keep symptoms at bay, including bloating, lethargy, dehydration, weakness, irritability and muscle twitching. Drinking water and eating mostly whole foods (not the kinds that come in packages!) also ensures you obtain enough other important electrolytes.
3. Drink Enough Water (but Not Too Much)
Electrolyte imbalances can develop when the amount of water in your body changes, either causing dehydration (not enough water compared to certain elevated electrolytes) or overhydration (too much water). Drinking enough water, without over-diluting your cells, helps stop levels of sodium and potassium from rising too high or too low.
How much water is the right amount for you? It all depends on your specific needs. Do you exercise often? Do you live in a warm climate that results in you sweating? Do you eat a lot of water-rich fruits or vegetables, or more processed foods?
While “eight glasses a day” has always been the standard recommendation, this isn’t necessarily the best amount for every person, since factors like your diet, age, physical activity level and body size all determine how much water you need. A good rule of thumb is to drink enough so you urinate at least every three to four hours, which for most people is around eight to 10 eight-ounce glasses daily.
If you practice vigorous exercise (especially in warm/hot weather that increases sweat production), make sure to replenish with plenty of water and electrolytes (like premade formulas that include sodium). If you’ve been sick (including with a fever that causes vomiting or diarrhea), keep in mind that you lose fluids and should increase your intake. If not, you risk developing dehydration symptoms, kidney stones, bladder infections, urinary tract stones and potentially even heart failure. That’s why it’s so important to protect yourself from dehydration. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding also need additional fluids (about 10–13 cups every day) to stay hydrated and prevented deficiencies, as do teenagers who are growing and developing faster than people of other ages.
Is it possible to drink too much water? Over-hydration is rare, but yes, it’s possible. Your kidneys are unable to excrete very high levels of excess water, so this can mean electrolytes within the blood can become diluted. The result might be low sodium levels, which is more common among endurance athletes (who often try to compensate for sweating by drinking lots of water) but not very likely to develop in someone eating the standard American diet that’s high in salt.