Electrolytes: Finding Balance During Adrenal Fatigue


salt crystal

Electrolytes are teeny, tiny things with big responsibilities. Fluid retention and balance, blood pH, transmission of nerve impulses, and muscle control are just a few jobs these electrically charged particles (ions) handle. Most people suffering from adrenal fatigue experience some level of electrolyte imbalance.

When it comes to electrolytes in the body, it’s all about balance. These particles work best when they’re in an ideal ratio of each other. There are many different electrolytes, but for the purpose of this blog we’ll be focusing on sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium and chloride.


In the blood and interstitial fluid, sodium is the most dominant of the four minerals. The balance of sodium and potassium significantly affects the symptoms experienced by people with adrenal fatigue. People with adrenal fatigue often have strong cravings for salty and savory foods. A craving for salt in people with adrenal fatigue can be explained by low aldosterone (a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands). In fact, sodium is probably the most critical element in adrenal fatigue.

Aldosterone is responsible for the maintenance of fluid (water) and the concentration of certain minerals (sodium, potassium, magnesium and chloride) in the blood, the interstitial fluid (area between the cells) and inside the cells. As circulating aldosterone levels fall, sodium is removed from your bloodstream as it passes through the kidneys and is excreted in the urine. When sodium is excreted it takes water along. Initially, there is some loss of volume of your body fluids but it does not become severe until your circulating sodium level drops to about 50% of its original concentration in body fluids. At this point, even a small loss of sodium begins to have severe consequences.

If you have an electrolyte imbalance, you must be careful how you rehydrate yourself. Drinking lots of water or liquid without adequate sodium replacement can make you feel worse because it further dilutes the amount of sodium in your blood. Avoid soft drinks or electrolyte-rich sports drinks because they are high in potassium and low in sodium, which only add to the imbalance.

For more on sodium and blood pressure, read this article by Dr. Wilson.


More than 90% of your body’s calcium is found in the bones and teeth. That leaves little for the rest of the body, but this small amount is responsible for big things, like blood clotting, muscle action and hormone production. Calcium also helps settle your nervous system and create inner calm.

Like beta fish, it’s best to keep calcium and magnesium separated. They get along together in the body, but when taken together they can cancel each other out, inhibiting absorption and utilization. It’s generally best to take calcium during the day, and supplement with magnesium at night.


Of the electrolytes, potassium has the highest concentration in the body’s cells. Like sodium, potassium levels are maintained by aldosterone. When too much salt or fluid is pulled from the interstitial fluids, the small amount of sodium in the cells begins to migrate out of the cells into the interstitial fluid.

The cell does not have a great reserve of sodium because it needs to maintain its 15:1 ratio of potassium to sodium. As the sodium is pulled from the cell, water follows the sodium out. This leaves the cell dehydrated as well as sodium deficient. In addition, in order to keep the sodium/potassium ratio inside the cell constant, potassium then begins to migrate out in small quantities. This creates even more electrolyte imbalance, leading to decreased adrenal function.


Most of the chloride in your body comes from the salt in your diet. You need chloride daily to balance fluid levels, perform nerve transmissions, move muscles and maintain kidney function. If you’re sodium is out of balance, chances are your chloride is as well.

Maintaining Balance

Dehydration is the most common cause of electrolyte balance, so staying hydrated can often prevent an imbalance. With adrenal fatigue, maintaining this balance can be tricky. Drinking lightly salted water can help, especially in the morning when aldosterone levels are low. You may also want to avoid potassium-heavy foods at this time as well. You can continue to drink salted water 2-4 times during the day, varying the amount of salt according to your taste.

It’s also recommended to avoid electrolyte-depleting or diuretic foods and beverages such as alcohol and coffee, especially if you have been out in the sun or are otherwise dehydrated. One of the problems people with adrenal fatigue constantly deal with is mild dehydration and sodium depletion.

But even in adrenal fatigue, the body is still wonderful, beautiful and incredibly wise. It is our society, our maladaptation to the stresses of modern life, and our poor judgment that need to change. We may not be able to change society but we can learn to use better judgment when it comes to taking care of ourselves and to respond to stress in healthier ways.


“Electrolytes: Get Facts On How Electrolytes Affect Disease.” MedicineNet. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2015.

“Electrolytes: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 07 May 2015.

“Fluid and Electrolyte Balance: MedlinePlus.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 07 May 2015.

Wilson, James L. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications, 2001. Print.

Dietary Supplements: Minerals, Stress & the Adrenal Glands


Mineral nutrients are the inorganic elements found in food that are essential to health. They play important roles in the body’s tissue structure and biochemistry, and work with vitamins in enzyme activity. Dietary minerals are generally classified according to the amount required each day as the following:

  • Macro Minerals: More than 100 mg/day
  • Micro Minerals: 1-100 mg/day, and
  • Trace Minerals: Less than 1 mg/day

There are several minerals from each of these classes that are key to healthy adrenal function and the stress response.

Macro Minerals and Stress


magnesium element card by Flickr user Science ActivismMagnesium acts like a spark plug for the adrenal glands and for the energy system of every cell in the body. It is essential to the enzyme and energy generation necessary for the adrenal hormone cascade that produces hormones like cortisol to deal with stress. Together with vitamin C and pantothenic acid, magnesium helps adrenal activity reach its full potential. Several of the steps that create energy in every cell, and especially in the adrenal glands, are so dependent on the presence of magnesium that it is a specific for adrenal recovery. When there is not enough magnesium present, the stress response can be triggered with less provocation, leading to increased irritability and reactivity.

Magnesium is absorbed best when taken at night after 8 PM but is beneficial throughout the entire day. During times of stress, it can be helpful to take magnesium, vitamin C and pantothenic acid two to four times a day, or even hourly if the stress is severe. Approximately 400 mg. per day of magnesium is the recommended daily amount for the average person. However, if supplemental calcium is used, more magnesium may be required – in a 1:2 ratio of magnesium to calcium. Taken before bedtime, magnesium promotes relaxation and sound sleep. It is essential for muscle relaxation. However, it can be used in the morning to help create energy because it improves ATP (Adenosine-5′-triphosphate – the cell’s energy transporter) synthesis in cells, and in the early afternoon to help mitigate the afternoon lows. Although absorption of magnesium during the day is not as great as after 8 PM, it is usually sufficient to produce the desired effect. For best absorption, take magnesium and all other minerals with an acidic food or drink, like fruit, meat or juice, or with digestive aids.

Good food sources of magnesium include cooked or sprouted whole grains (wheat, oats, barley, etc.); yeast raised whole grain bread; sprouted legumes (soy beans, mung beans, etc.); legumes that have been soaked and then cooked in fresh water; fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh; lightly roasted Brazil nuts, pine nuts and pumpkin seeds; sprouted or lightly roasted sesame seeds (unhulled) and products made from them such as tahini and humus; cooked spinach and artichokes; and sea vegetables such as kelp (the highest source).

When taking supplemental magnesium, look for magnesium citrate, malate or glycinate. These are generally the easiest supplementary forms for the body to absorb.


calcium element card by Flickr user Science ActivismIn addition to being the primary structural component of bones and teeth, calcium acts somewhat like a shock absorber for the body when a stressor hits. It helps trigger adrenal hormone secretion, facilitate the transmission of messages throughout the nervous system, calm sensory and motor nerves, activate enzymes that release stored energy in the muscles, modulate muscle tone (including in the heart and blood vessels), control blood acid- alkaline balance, and regulate the flow of nutrients in and out of the cells. It is so important to survival that the body takes calcium from the bones when circulating levels are too low.

Stress reduces calcium absorption in the intestine but there are a variety of dietary and physiological factors that can enhance calcium uptake. Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium in the small intestine and decreases loss of calcium in the urine. Vitamin D can be obtained through food, supplements and skin exposure to sunlight. Supplemental vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is identical to the form of vitamin D the human body manufactures from sunlight, whereas supplemental vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is less potent and active in the human body than vitamin D3. Unfortunately, D2 is the form usually used in milk and many supplements. Phosphorus enhances calcium absorption from food and supplements when it is in a ratio of approximately 1 part phosphorus to 2 parts calcium similar to the ratio found in human milk. Too much phosphorus, however, increases calcium excretion – a good reason to avoid all soft drinks. Moderate protein and fat intake, adequate hydrochloric acid in the stomach, vitamin C and exercise also improve absorption of calcium.

Calcium and magnesium counterbalance each other’s actions in the body to maintain equilibrium. For example, during the stress response calcium helps increase blood pressure and muscle tone in preparation for physical action, then as the stress lessens, magnesium helps muscles and the cardiovascular system relax. Magnesium also helps calcium stay more soluble in the body, reducing calcification. The typical recommended daily amount of calcium is 750 to 1,000 mg. When supplemental calcium is used, at least half that amount of supplemental magnesium should also be taken.

Like magnesium, calcium is absorbed best after 8 PM, but because calcium can interfere with magnesium absorption in the intestine, it is better to take calcium and magnesium at different times. They can be taken on alternate evenings or at separate times in the later part of the same day, but take the magnesium closer to bedtime. Also, the presence of dietary fiber can help protect magnesium absorption from calcium inhibition.

Cow’s milk and dairy foods are commonly considered to be good food sources of calcium. However, commercially available cow’s milk presents two problems in this regard: 1) The process of pasteurization and ultra pasteurization changes the calcium complexes in the milk, making them less suitable for the body. 2) Synthetic vitamin D2, made  by irradiating ergosterol, is commonly used to fortify milk but produces much less enhancement of calcium absorption in humans than does an equivalent amount of D3 (the form that naturally occurs in milk), and tends to increase calcification in the joints and other areas of the body. Certified raw milk and goat’s milk, fortified with natural D3, do not pose these problems to calcium absorption.

There are several other factors to consider about using milk as the primary source of calcium: the calcium to magnesium ratio in milk is approximately 10:1, so the more milk is consumed, the more magnesium needs to be obtained from other sources to prevent a magnesium deficiency. Although milk protein (casein) and milk sugar (lactose), in small amounts, facilitate absorption of calcium, diets high in meat and dairy protein can cause an acid condition that the body tries to balance with calcium taken from the bones. In addition, many people these days are sensitive or allergic to the protein or sugar in milk and other dairy foods.

Phytates found in raw plant foods like leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and legumes also interfere with the body’s ability to use calcium. Phytate levels can be lowered by certain food processes such as using yeast to raise dough; lightly roasting or sprouting seeds, grains, legumes, nuts; presoaking legumes and then cooking them in fresh water; and fermentation.

Good non-dairy food sources of calcium include sprouted or lightly roasted sesame seeds (unhulled) and products made from them such as tahini and humus; calcium set tofu; cooked deep green vegetables such as kale, collard, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, parsley and broccoli; sprouted legumes (soy beans, mung beans, etc.); legumes that have been soaked and then cooked in fresh water; fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh; winter squash; figs; nuts; and sea vegetables such as kelp; blackstrap molasses; sardines; canned fish and meat stews cooked with bones in.

When taking supplemental calcium, look for calcium citrate or calcium lactate (if you are not sensitive to milk). It is best to avoid calcium from bone meal, dolomite, or unrefined oyster shells as these may contain lead or other toxic metals. Keep in mind that your body can normally efficiently process about 500 mg. of calcium at any one time, whether from food or supplements. If you are taking more than this in supplements, split them up into several doses for optimum absorption and utilization.

Micro Minerals, Trace Elements and Stress

Micro minerals and trace elements occur in very small amounts in your body and in food but are essential for your overall health. Micro minerals  are minerals required by a typical adult in quantities of 1mg-100 mg. per day. These include copper, sulfur, manganese, selenium, zinc and chromium. Trace elements are minerals required by a typical adult in quantities of less than 1mg per day. These include fluorine, iodine, cobalt, molybdenum and silicon, among others.

They typically have a calming effect on the body and are especially valuable if you are jittery, nervous, or easily frightened or upset. When your adrenals fatigue, you may become extremely edgy and trace minerals can help you feel more tranquil. Like most minerals, micro minerals and trace elements are absorbed and utilized better when they are taken in the evening and/or with an acidic food or drink. Therefore, have them with meals when your body’s digestive juices are secreted or with something acidic such as tomato juice or vitamin C. If needed, however, they can be taken throughout the day as a calming influence.

Trace and micro mineral supplements vary in the quality and quantity of each mineral they contain. They are generally easiest to absorb in liquid form but you should be careful of so called “colloidal” preparations. They sometimes contain toxic trace minerals including lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. The best sources of trace and micro minerals are sprouts, young plants, algae, and sea vegetables and the trace mineral supplements made from them. A hair analysis is an inexpensive and fairly reliable way to determine your mineral deficiencies and toxicities.

Image credits: Magnesium and calcium element cards by Flickr user Science Activism