Electrolytes and Your Fluid Level
Keeping adequately hydrated, and having enough fluids, is one of the most fundamental things anyone can do to improve or maintain their health. There are lots of different pieces of advice out there, but what is the truth? It depends on your unique situation.
Living in a hot or dry environment, high-intensity exercise, diabetes, diarrhea, and fever can all cause dehydration (low fluid levels). But do you really need to drink 6-8 glasses of water daily (that is a myth)? How can you determine whether you need to drink more fluids? There is an effortless and effective way to find out.
How to Check Your ‘Fluid Level
While seated, place your right hand, palm down, on your right leg. The veins in the back of your hand should stand up above the surface and feel moderately firm and puffy. If your veins are full, slowly raise your hand and watch the veins. When you reach the point where your veins disappear, stop and look at the height of your hand. This height is your ‘fluid level’. Ideally, your veins should remain full and ‘up’ to eye level. (If your veins stay up above the level of your head, your diastolic [bottom number of blood pressure] is too high).
The ‘fluid level’ must be higher than the level of your heart in order to provide proper circulation to all parts of your body. Conversely, when your ‘fluid level’ is low, the trunk of your body takes fluids (by constricting the veins) from your head, arms, and legs in order to supply the heart and other organs (that are necessary for life) with an adequate supply of blood.
When the ‘fluid level’ is down and the veins in the arms, legs, and head are constricted, the person tires easily due to the lack of oxygen in their system.
We’ll try to explain what is meant by ‘fluid level’ in this example:
For a moment, compare the fluid level in your body to the hot-water heating system in a two-story house. The hot-water heating system in the house is called a closed system. Simplified, it is composed of a pump and two valves (an inlet and outlet), and a network of pipes filled with water that runs throughout both floors of the house. The close system works like this:
The pump takes in the fluid, or water, through the inlet valve. Fluid pressure builds with the pump until the water is forced out of the pump’s outlet valve, through the house’s pipe network (including radiators where the heat is dispensed), and then back again full circuit to the pump’s inlet to start the journey all over again.
Now compare the house’s pump to your heart, the pipes to your vascular system (the veins and arteries through which the blood flows), and the fluid running through the house’s pipes to your blood.
Your electrolytes, like water, are vital. They help make the pump (heart) work properly. Just as the heating system in the house would not function properly if it were low on fluid, your body cannot function properly without enough fluid. Therefore, your pump (heart) must also provide enough pressure for the fluids (blood) to get to all parts of the house (body).
When you eat, your circulatory system picks up nutrients from the food. Then, it circulates them through your body, at the same time picking up waste materials.
When your fluid level is low, the veins constrict to compensate for the lack of volume. The fluid level must be higher than the pump (your heart) in order to provide proper circulation to all parts of the body. The blood circulates through your tissues when your circulation increases (from drinking at least 3 glasses of water with electrolytes daily). This brings the waste material from the muscles and tissues of your body into your system.
Every day your muscles degenerate, similar to compost. If your circulation is down, this creates byproducts and waste material. When your circulation increases from drinking electrolyte-rich water, it pulls out the waste materials, circulating them through your body. This, in turn, affects the nervous system andyour heart. Your body then sends out signals making you feel bad; often, you will have a bad taste in your mouth and won’t feel very well. Then your body says, ‘don’t drink water’; it makes you feel bad. This is why many people don’t like to drink water. If you drink water regularly, you won’t have this problem as you will have diluted the waste materials enough to not affect the nervous system and heart.
People with low blood pressure suffer from reduced circulation. This is because their hearts are at rest too much and do not have the stroke volume to circulate their blood. Normal blood pressure should be around 120/70, with a mean of 90. If your blood pressure is 100/60, your sodium level may be too low. Suppose your blood pressure is 170/90. In that case, your potassium may be too low, and you should increase your potassium intake and reduce, but not eliminate, your sodium intake.
Seventy percent of your total body’s weight is water. In order for you to live and function, your blood must also carry dissolved minerals. These are known as electrolytes. Electrolytes are compounds that disassociate into charged particles called ions when dissolved in a liquid. These act as a battery, creating an electrical charge. The human body is like a machine that runs on positive and negative ions. Without electrolytes and the electricity they produce, life would be impossible.
The primary positive electrolytes, also known as cations, are sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium Ca++), and magnesium (Mg++). The primary negative electrolytes, also known as anions, are chloride (Cl-), bicarbonate (HCO3-), and phosphate (HPO4- -).
Balance is critical when dealing with electrolytes. Most of us know that excessive sodium in our diet leads to all sorts of problems, especially hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and stroke. It can also lead to tense muscles, increasing the risk of injury, especially during vigorous exercise.
The equilibrium between potassium and sodium is the most out of balance in the Western diet. However, it is common in much of the industrial world. A normal ratio of potassium to sodium (K/Na) is 2:1. Yet, many people intake the exact opposite at 1:2, getting far too much sodium and not enough potassium.
In 2019, the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for sodium was 1,500 mg, down from 2,300 mg, which is probably a good thing. Unfortunately, the RDI for potassium is now 3,400 mg, down from 4,700 mg. This is despite the “relatively strong evidence” that an increased potassium intake can reduce high blood pressure. This dramatic reduction in potassium may be due to the finding that 97% of Americans did not get the RDI for potassium. So, instead of keeping the recommendation at a higher level and pushing for increases in dietary intake of this important electrolyte, it was decided to have more people qualify for adequate consumption of potassium.
Reclaiming a Proper Balance of Sodium and Potassium
Potassium intake should be broadly increased in almost everyone’s diet. While reducing sodium is easily achieved by significantly reducing your intake of processed and fast foods, and reading food labels, increasing potassium is a bit more challenging in today’s food marketplace.
There are a number of factors that will cause low potassium: excessive alcohol consumption, chronic kidney disease, diabetic acidosis, diuretics, some antibiotics, diarrhea, excessive sweating, and folic acid deficiency are the most common causes.
For most people, increasing potassium intake is crucial in improving or maintaining one’s health. It is commonly thought that bananas are something to consume regularly to boost potassium intake, but that is not entirely true. While they are higher in potassium than many foods, they contain a lot of natural sugars, and many foods are quite a bit higher.
Here is a list of the top ten foods/food groups for potassium.
1. Green leafy vegetables
o Beet Greens, Swiss Chard, Spinach, and Kale
o Salmon, Snapper, Mahi-Mahi, and Tilapia
o White, Lima, Navy, and Lentils
5. White (bake and eat the skins) and Sweet Potatoes
o Acorn, Hubbard, Butternut, and Zucchini
o Milk (limit), Yogurt, and Ricotta Cheese (beware, many cheeses are high in sodium)
o White, Cremini, Oyster, and Portabellas
o Bananas, Guava, Kiwi, and Cantaloupe
Increasing your potassium intake and monitoring your sodium consumption will go a long way in maintaining and improving your health.