How to Achieve Optimal Hydration and The Role of Electrolytes
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Maintaining good hydration in the body creates optimal health and performance while slowing the aging process. Yet, dehydration remains common, affecting people of all ages and up to 17 to 28% of older adults. Although by some accounts, low-level dehydration is even more common, putting stress on body functions.
You might be surprised to learn that hydration is more than drinking water. Electrolytes play a critical role in fluid balance.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- The importance of hydration
- Dehydration causes
- Dehydration symptoms
- Electrolytes definition
- Electrolytes and exercise
- Electrolytes and pregnancy
- Four steps for improving hydration
Let’s get started!
Importance of Hydration
The human body contains around 55-65% water, making it incredibly important for body function and overall health. Losing even 1% of water may cause dehydration.
A recent 2023 study looked at hydration and factors of aging, suggesting that dehydration accelerates the aging process, contributing to chronic disease and even premature mortality. If that’s the case, optimal hydration may slow aging and contribute to a longer, healthier life.
What is Dehydration?
Dehydration occurs when we lose more water than we replace through food and beverages.
We naturally lose water through:
- The skin via sweat
- The lungs via breathing
- The kidneys via urine
- The digestive tract via bowel movements
We may lose even more water and be at risk for dehydration under these circumstances:
- Difficulty drinking enough water, such as with morning sickness
- High-intensity exercise or endurance exercise
- Following a low-carb or keto diet (which increases sodium loss)
- Increased sweating from hot weather, exercise, saunas
- Using diuretic medications
- Drinking alcohol
- Vomiting or diarrhea
Symptoms of Dehydration
When the brain senses a drop in hydration, it does two things. First, it increases thirst to signal you to drink fluids. Second, it increases antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which tells your kidneys to reabsorb water.
The first symptom of dehydration is thirst. Other symptoms include:
- Dry lips, tongue, and mouth
- Dizziness with standing
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle cramps
- Dark urine; decreased urination
Dehydration affects brain function. Even mild dehydration impacts mental performance, which typically returns with rehydration. In extreme cases, dehydration can lead to electrolyte imbalances, which can cause neurological symptoms and be life-threatening.
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that play a role in fluid balance. When dissolved in water, electrolytes have a positive or negative charge allowing them to produce muscle contractions (including your heartbeat), send nerve signals, and regulate body pH. As we lose water, we also lose electrolytes.
Getting enough electrolytes through food and the natural minerals found in water is possible.
However, the electrolyte levels your body requires increase with:
- Your activity level
- How much you sweat
- Drinking more water
- Living in a hot or dry climate
Electrolytes and Exercise
Electrolyte replacement is essential if you exercise in hot weather, at a high intensity, or for long periods.
As you become dehydrated with exercise, electrolyte levels decrease. Likewise, if you drink a lot of water during exercise without replacing electrolytes, you may end up with low electrolytes as the electrolytes become diluted.
Seven to 15% of marathon runners experience exercise-associated hyponatremia, low sodium concentration in the blood. Mild cases may be asymptomatic or include symptoms of dehydration, as outlined above. In extreme cases, hyponatremia can cause confusion, seizures, and even death.
You don’t need to be a marathon runner to experience dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, although endurance certainly contributes. Hyponatremia, hypokalemia (low potassium), and other imbalances are common in those who don’t adequately hydrate during shorter runs, team sports, and yoga.
One study examined hikers in the summer heat and rates of exertional heat illness. The study found that hot conditions impaired their physical performance, and most hikers don’t carry enough water to offset water loss from sweat. The study suggests that 25% of heat-related illnesses may be due to a fluid and electrolyte imbalance, not the heat exposure.
Electrolytes and Pregnancy
Pregnancy is another time to be extra mindful of hydration and electrolytes. During pregnancy, fluid levels in the body dramatically increase. Blood volume increases by 50%, and amniotic fluid fills the uterus. Many discomforts of pregnancy, like constipation and headaches, may be related to dehydration.
During pregnancy, you’ll need to drink more water and increase electrolytes. If you are craving pickles or other salty foods, chances are this is your body’s wisdom asking for more electrolytes, including sodium.
Learn more about nutrition during pregnancy here: All You Need to Know About Prenatal Nutrition.
How to Improve Hydration
Proper hydration involves water and electrolytes. We all need to drink water daily, but if you are losing electrolytes from exercise or have higher needs, as in pregnancy, you may need to replace electrolytes as well.
Here are some tips for maintaining optimal hydration:
1. Drink enough water each day. There is much debate about how much water to drink, and the truth is that your needs are individual and constantly changing. Start with around 64 ounces (8 glasses) or 100 ounces if pregnant.
Then, adjust depending on exercise intensity, climate, and other factors. Clear urine and keeping thirst at bay are also signs of good hydration.
If you have a hard time drinking enough water, consider these tips:
- Track your water intake
- Carry a water bottle everywhere
- Drink sparkling water
- Flavor water with fruit, herbal tea, or an electrolyte powder
Note that more water is not always better. Overhydration can cause electrolyte
imbalances just as dehydration can.
2. Eat a whole food diet. By eating a variety of unprocessed food each day, you’ll naturally be consuming minerals and electrolytes. Many fresh fruits and vegetables are also good sources of water!
Good sources of sodium: seaweed, seafood, bone broth, vegetable broth, sea salt, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, and miso
Good sources of potassium: bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, avocado, mango, pineapple, beans, seafood, tomatoes, melons, beets, parsnips, coconut water
Good sources of magnesium: leafy green vegetables, avocados, beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, dark chocolate
Good sources of calcium: milk and dairy products, almond butter, tahini, sardines, anchovies, bone broth, green vegetables, lentils
3. Get enough sleep. It might seem weird to mention sleep regarding hydration, but those who don’t get enough sleep (around six hours vs. the recommended eight) are more at risk for dehydration. If you need help with sleep, check out these sleep tips.
4. Add an electrolyte supplement. An electrolyte drink is a beverage that contains water and electrolytes that you can use daily or during exercise to prevent dehydration. Most electrolyte drinks are neon colored and high in sugar; skip those and opt for quality ingredients.
The formulas contain the following:
- Magnesium, potassium, and sodium
- Natural electrolytes and trace minerals from coconut water
- Water-soluble nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12
- Pea starch, a low glycemic carbohydrate for energy and balanced blood sugar
- Fruit + greens blend for added minerals and phytonutrients
- Raspberry leaf, a mineral-rich and pregnancy-safe herb
- Ginger, a natural anti-inflammatory and digestive support herb
The original formula contains caffeine for an excellent pre-workout boost. Enjoy the stimulant-free option anytime, as it doesn’t contain caffeine.
When it comes to hydration, water isn’t the whole story. Be sure to eat a mineral-rich diet and replace electrolytes as needed. With a bit of attention, you can keep your body hydrated for optimal health, performance, and longevity, while avoiding symptoms of dehydration.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.
2. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ebiom/article/PIIS2352-3964(22)00586 2/fulltext
9. Real Food for Pregnancy by Lily Nichols