Whether you need to refuel after a tough workout or your body is trying to recover from a cold or the flu, electrolytes and proper hydration are the key to a strong and resilient immune system. When you sweat, whether from extreme physical activity or a raging fever, a loss of electrolytes and dehydration occur. If this happens, you're lacking the nutrients you need to bounce back, prolonging your recovery period and your symptoms.
Take a look at the immune system and the role electrolytes have in maintaining optimal balance.
Boosting Your Immunity With Electrolytes
Understanding the Immune System
The immune system is a collection of structures and processes within the body that protect against disease or foreign bodies. At its peak function, the immune system identifies threats to your health, such as bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other foreign materials, and separates them from the body's own tissue.
The primary function of the immune system is to prevent or lessen the effects of infection. In immunocompromised people, such as people with cancer, HIV, and genetic diseases that affect immunity, the immune system isn't able to defend the body as effectively. This leads to opportunistic infections and harmful conditions.
The major components of the immune system are:
Lymph nodes are small, bean-like structures that store and produce cells that fight infection and disease. They're found within the lymphatic system, which contains the spleen, thymus gland, and bone marrow. Lymph nodes hold lymph, the clear fluid that transports and delivers cells throughout the body.
The spleen is the largest organ in the lymphatic system. It's located on the left side, beneath the ribs, and contains white blood cells that attack infections. The spleen also identifies and discards damaged blood cells.
The thymus gland is an organ where T cells mature. It's located beneath the breastbone and triggers antibodies that cause muscle weakness. The thymus starts out large and grows until puberty, before slowly decreasing in size over time.
Bone marrow is the substance within the bones that produces white blood cells. It's primarily located in large bones, such as the hip and thigh bones, and contains stem cells.
Lymphocytes are white blood cells that defend the body against disease and infection. There are T cells, which destroy infected or cancerous cells, and B cells, which create antibodies to attack bacteria, parasites, and viruses.
Leukocytes are white blood cells that identify and destroy bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
Though not part of the lymphatic system, the immune system has other organs that aid in protecting the body. The skin is the first line of defense and the largest organ. Skin cells produce and secrete antimicrobial proteins, and some layers of skin hold immune cells.
Mucosal tissue is also involved in protecting the body from pathogens. Mucosal tissue is found in the respiratory tract and gut and holds immune cells. Finally, immune cells circulate through the bloodstream to identify and attack bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
The bloodstream also plays a role in the immune system to transport fluids, nutrients, and nerve pulses to organs. All the cellular elements of the blood derive from bone marrow, forming a strong relationship between the bloodstream and the immune system.
The bloodstream is about 90% water, so without proper hydration, the blood volume is reduced and circulation isn't as effective. Dehydration also impacts the lymphatic system, which uses a drainage system to remove waste, pathogens, and foreign substances from the body. During dehydration, the lymph is reduced, slowing the response to a pathogen.
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals in the body that have an electric charge. They are found in bodily fluids such as blood and urine. They're exceptionally important for maintaining hydration levels because the movement of sodium and potassium throughout cells determines how much water our bodies retain.
Nerve cells also require electrolytes to carry electrical impulses throughout the body. These electrical impulses control both smooth and skeletal muscle function, mental health, sleep patterns, and more.
Some of the primary electrolytes are:
Sodium is a vital nutrient for regulating water and fluid balance. It tells the kidneys how much water to retain and how much to excrete. It also stimulates electrical impulses in nerve cells to transfer messages to and from the brain, which is necessary for muscle contraction and relaxation.
In excess, sodium can lead to high blood pressure. Many people have an excess of sodium from table salt. The kidneys can eliminate this excess sodium, but it comes at the cost of dumping potassium. If potassium levels are low, the body tries to hoard it, holding onto sodium as well. Water is then retained, leading to a higher blood volume and higher blood pressure.
Like sodium, potassium is necessary for water equilibrium and muscle function, including the smooth muscles like the heart. Potassium generates electrical impulses that are vital to nerve signaling as well.
If you have too much sodium in your diet, it can lead to an imbalance of potassium. Molecular pumps pull potassium into cells and push sodium out, fueling the transmission of signals along nerve pathways. In contrast, a higher intake of potassium helps the body to flush excess sodium, alleviating the issues of high blood pressure and heart problems. They work together, so an excess of one can lead to a deficiency in the other.
Chloride is an electrolyte that also works to maintain water balance. It's found outside the cells and regulates the water transferring in and out of cells. It also regulates the body's pH balance or the body's acidity.
Bicarbonate is an alkaline electrolyte that works to regulate pH in the body. It neutralizes the acid in the blood and digestive system, helping to restore proper balance.
Phosphate is an important mineral for bones and teeth and aids in the manufacturing of the proteins used to repair damaged cells. In excess, phosphate can displace calcium, leading to weakened bones.
Known for its impact on bone health, calcium is a mineral that builds strong, healthy bones and repairs damage to bones and teeth. Low calcium levels can lead to fractures and diseases like osteoporosis and rickets. Calcium also factors into both smooth and skeletal muscle contractions. In excess, calcium can lead to kidney stones and cysts.
Magnesium plays a role in many bodily functions and reactions. It's necessary for numerous chemical reactions, cell function, muscle function, nerve signaling, enzymatic function, sleep patterns, mood patterns, and more. Magnesium is also necessary for the absorption of calcium. Excess magnesium is rare, but a deficiency can lead to early menopausal symptoms, poor moods, muscle cramps, severe premenstrual syndrome, and fatigue.
As you can see, the role of electrolytes in the body is to work together to facilitate chemical reactions. If the level of one electrolyte gets too high, another gets too low. Electrolytes may become imbalanced as a result of hydration levels, as well as other factors.
Vital electrolytes are lost in sweat, whether from illness or exercise, such as sodium and potassium. They can also be lost through bodily fluids, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive urination. Once they're depleted, they need to be replaced to reach optimal conditions. The kidneys and hormones can help regulate the concentration of electrolytes, but there's a tipping point in which the body is no longer able to restore balance. When this occurs, there are often unpleasant and potentially dangerous health effects.
The symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance vary according to the specific electrolyte and its concentration, but may include:
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Bone disorders
- Muscle weakness
- Spasms and twitching
- Blood pressure changes
- Nervous system disorders
The causes of an electrolyte imbalance include:
- Poor hydration
- Excessive sweating
- Prolonged diarrhea or vomiting
- Poor diet
- Severe dehydration
- pH imbalance
- Heart failure
- Cancer treatments
- Diuretic use
- Eating disorders
How to Balance Electrolytes
In most cases, treating an electrolyte imbalance involves restoring the low levels. In severe cases of excess or deficiency, medical intervention may be necessary.
If dehydration is from the loss of bodily fluid, such as sweating or illness, electrolyte supplements may be enough to restore balance. Keep in mind, however, that it's important to also rehydrate because an excess of electrolytes without adequate water intake is dangerous.
Many foods are naturally rich sources of electrolytes. Here are some common sources of electrolytes:
- Sodium: Pickles, tomato-based sauce or juice, table salt
- Potassium: Skin-on potatoes, plain yogurt, bananas
- Magnesium: Nuts and seeds, spinach and other leafy greens, fish
- Calcium: Dairy products, spinach, kale, collard greens, sardines
- Chloride: Tomato-based sauce or juice, lettuce, olives, salt
You can also prevent an electrolyte balance by staying hydrated during sickness and exercise with water and electrolyte supplements. Consuming water and electrolytes helps to counteract the effects of losing fluids and electrolytes in sweat.
Stay Healthy with Hydration & Immunity Boosts
From fighting off seasonal illnesses to recovering from the cold or flu, a dose of electrolytes gives your body the support it needs to stay hydrated, balanced, and healthy. Perfect for any drink on the go, Buoy is a squeezable electrolyte supplement that you can add to your favorite beverage for an instant boost!
For an even bigger immune boost, try Buoy + Immunity. It has all the electrolytes of Buoy + immune-supporting vitamins A - E, zinc, elderberry, echinacea, and ginger root.
Learn more about Hydration and Immunity.
Electrolyte imbalance, Electrolyte supplements, The role of electrolytes in the body, How to balance electrolytes
- Szabó J;Vucskits AV;Andrásofszky E;Berta E;Bersényi A;Börzsönyi L;Pálfi V;Hullár I; “Effect of Dietary Electrolyte Balance on Production, Immune Response and Mineral Concentrations of the Femur in Broilers.” Acta Veterinaria Hungarica, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21727062/
- Janeway, Charles A, and Jr. “The Components of the Immune System.” Immunobiology: The Immune System in Health and Disease. 5th Edition., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1970, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27092/.
- “Overview of the Immune System.” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-system-overview.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Potassium and Sodium out of Balance.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/potassium_and_sodium_out_of_balance.