Sick too Often? Electrolytes and Your Immune System
In a perfect world, your immune system protects you from the germs that want to drag you down. But what happens if you’re low on electrolytes? I’ll give you a hint: nothing good. Without a balanced electrolyte profile, your immune system is about as useful as a Christmas tree in July. You always need the right ratios of sodium, chloride, potassium, and calcium (just to name a few).
For starters, electrolytes are essential to cellular energy production. They also act as messengers that communicate important information throughout the body. In this article, we take a close look at electrolytes and immunity. Let's get started!
Sick too Often? Electrolytes and Your Immune System
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are compounds that conduct electricity in a liquid solution. In humans, the main electrolytes are:
Next, we’ll cover how the immune system works, then we’ll dive deep into the role of electrolytes and immunity.
How the Immune System Works
Immunity is your body’s defense system to avoid infection, disease, allergies and autoimmune conditions. Your immune system includes the:
- Lymph nodes
- Bone marrow
- Thymus gland
These organs make “lymphocytes” and release them into the bloodstream (1). Lymphocytes are white blood cells, and they’re classified as either “B cells” or “T cells.” Both types of lymphocytes fight invaders called “antigens.”
B cells: release specific antibodies that fight disease—think of them like the body’s military intelligence system.
T cells: destroy foreign or mutated cells—think of them like the soldiers that destroy the invaders your intelligence system finds.
What do electrolytes have to do with all this? Electrolytes control immune signaling and protect the cell’s membrane. Now let’s take a closer look at electrolytes and immunity.
How Electrolytes Support Immunity
Don’t worry...this section is both in-depth and quick and painless. When it comes to your immune system, the most important electrolytes for immunity are:
Electrolytes like calcium, magnesium and zinc act as secondary messengers that regulate immune cell signaling. In other words, they trigger the different parts of the immune system into action. Other electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, regulate what enters and exits the cell. Studies show that electrolytes also affect lymphocyte development (2).
Here’s how each specific electrolyte supports immunity:
Calcium is the initial trigger for your immune response. Until recently, scientists understood very little about how wounds attract the first white blood cells. Then in 2013, researchers at the University of Bristol’s School of Biochemistry revealed how the release of calcium is the very first step in healing damaged tissue (3).
First, a flash of calcium spreads like a wave from the edge of the wound to all other cells, filling in the gaps along the way. Ka-blam! Instant healing!
Then, the calcium signal attracts the first white blood cells by releasing hydrogen peroxide. Without good ‘ol calcium, invading microbes could easily lead to infection, sepsis and death.
A recent study published in the journal Immunity found that calcium also helps fight viruses (4). It controls how immune cells use nutrients, like glucose, to fuel your army of white blood cells. Ultimately, calcium is the secret sauce that allows your T cells to multiply and spread throughout the body.
Potassium is found in all of the body’s cells. It plays a major role in neutralizing the acids made during digestion. An acidic digestive system can weaken the gut lining and compromise the immune system. Potassium is important for other cellular functions too, including:
- Heartbeat rhythm
- Preventing muscle aches
- Boosting energy levels
But that’s not all... Research also shows that potassium has serious antitumor effects. One recent study found that a combination of potassium, thyroxine, glucose and insulin stimulates lymphocytes to attack colon and skin cancer cells (5). The study’s authors think that potassium-based therapies may be able to help with chronic infections and autoimmune disease as well.
A separate study featured on the cover of Science magazine investigated why some cancer patients have dysfunctional T cells and others do not (6). They found that dysfunctional T cells are often due to potassium imbalance.
Even moderately low levels of potassium can cause:
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty focusing
- Poor memory
- Kidney stones
Even worse, potassium imbalance can lead to sodium sensitivities and a bunch of other health issues...
Sodium supports the immune cells of the kidney, intestines and skin. In balanced doses, sodium regulates inflammation and helps treat autoimmune conditions through its effects on immune cells. According to a recent study published in the journal Nature, immune cells are closely involved in sodium regulation (7). Researchers found that dietary changes in salt (sodium chloride) can change your intestinal bacteria.
At one extreme, too much sodium can promote inflammation and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. On the flipside, though, the balanced amounts of sodium in electrolyte supplements can boost immunity without the downsides. For example, a recent study concluded that, “Increasing local Na+ availability may help in treating infections, while lowering tissue Na+ levels may be used to treat, for example, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases” (8).
It’s all about balance baby!
Chloride is the sister electrolyte of sodium. In nature, they’re found together in the form of salt (sodium chloride). Just like sodium, chloride is essential to immunity. Many immune cells depend on chloride to function. In a 2018 study, researchers found that epithelial, hepatic and fibroblast immune cells have enhanced antiviral activity in the presence of chloride (9). These cells help fight several kinds of viruses, including:
- Herpes simplex virus-1
- Murine gammaherpesvirus 68
- Respiratory syncytial virus
- Influenza A virus
- Human coronavirus 229E
- Coxsackievirus B3
Zinc affects immunity in several ways (10): For starters, it helps special immune cells called neutrophils and NK cells. Macrophages—cells that kill harmful bacteria—are also affected by zinc. These cells also support lymphocyte production and communicate with cytokines: the cells that control inflammation.
Zinc is an antioxidant that prevents damage from free radicals and inflammation. When it’s all said and done, zinc deficiency can lead to several health problems, including:
- Skin lesions
- Hair loss
- Poor nutrient absorption
Ultimately, zinc deficiency can affect membrane permeability and cause problems with sugar absorption (11).
Magnesium is the second-most common electrolyte in all living organisms. Here are just a few of the ways that magnesium beefs-up your immune system (12):
- Manages inflammation
- Activates immune cells
- Initiates apoptosis, or cell death
In rodent studies, a magnesium-deficient diet causes inflammation after just eight days (13). Magnesium affects enzyme activation and manages the life cycle of your cells. When you’re deficient, your cells don’t know when to replicate, activate or die.
Magnesium also has a direct effect on mental health. Known as “nature’s chill pill,” magnesium can quickly calm anxiety and promote sleep.
Signs and Symptoms of a Weak Immune System
Think you might have a weak immune system? Here’s how to tell:
- You get frequent infections
- You’re stressed all the time
- You have a lot of digestive issues
- You’re tired all the time
- Your wounds heal slowly
- You always have the cold or flu
Common infections include:
- Skin infections
People with weakened immune systems are also more likely to experience:
- Blood disorders like anemia
- Autoimmune conditions
- Loss of appetite
- Growth and developmental delays in children
But the best way to know for sure if you have a weakened immune system is to ask your doctor to do a baseline blood test. This test can tell you whether or not your antibodies are in the normal range.
Boost Immunity with Gut-Healthy Foods
The best way to support immunity and correct electrolyte imbalances is through diet. Foods like cucumbers and celery are loaded with electrolytes. At the same time, foods like bone broth are rich in nutrients that strengthen the gut lining and boost immunity. Let’s take a closer look and which foods to eat and which ones to avoid:
Foods to Avoid
The three biggest foods that weaken the immune system:
Sugar and artificial sweeteners: Sugar wreaks havoc on your immune system faster than anything else. This includes high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
Hydrogenated oils: Processed vegetable oils like canola, corn, safflower and soybean oil are highly inflammatory. Pro tip: anything that boosts inflammation is bad for immunity.
Processed foods: If it comes from a fast food restaurant, the freezer aisle or the microwave, it’s probably full of preservatives and fillers that are bad for your belly and wear on the immune system.
Eating these foods can trigger food allergies, joint discomfort, low energy, thyroid issues, leaky gut symptoms and immune challenges throughout the body.
Foods to Load-up On
The top three foods for boosting immunity:
Bone broth: Bone broth is one of the best sources of collagen, a protein that rapidly heals the gut lining. It boosts immunity by preventing undigested food particles and chemicals from entering the bloodstream and causing inflammation.
Fermented foods: Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and other fermented foods contain belly-friendly probiotics that support healthy gut bacteria. The gut lining is only a single cell thick, so it relies on good bacteria to help reinforce it.
Electrolyte-rich foods: Cucumbers, celery, spinach, kale, avocados, broccoli, almonds, strawberries, oranges, bananas, and coconuts are loaded with electrolytes that boost immunity.
It can be hard to change your eating habits, but if you take baby steps, you’ll have an immune-friendly diet in no time. At the same time, it’s hard to eat and drink healthy all day, every day.
Fortunately, electrolyte supplements are a great nutritional insurance policy for when you’re on the run, or when you need more than what your diet naturally provides.
PRO TIP: try an easy squeezy hydration + immunity boost that can be added into anything you’re already drinking. Trust me...they exist ;-) With a balanced electrolyte profile, you’ll be well on your way to a stronger immune system and a healthier you.
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