As the temperature begins to climb in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time to demystify one of the nutrition world’s most thrown-around phrases during the sweaty summer months.
If you’re up on your consensus hydration philosophy, then you have undoubtedly heard that it’s not enough to chug some water after a hard workout in the summer heat. No. You also need to “replace your electrolytes.” (And if you’ve ever watched the commercials aired during an American sporting event, you may be under the false impression that electrolytes can exclusively be replaced via brightly colored sports drinks!) But what exactly are electrolytes?
To put it as simply as possible, electrolytes are minerals that are essential to many key functions performed by our bodies.
More generally, the word “electrolyte” is used to describe any particles that carry positive or negative electric charges. More specifically in nutrition, electrolytes are the minerals that are dissolved in bodily fluids like blood, sweat, and urine, forming positive or negative ions which are used in crucial metabolic processes.
And if you’re wondering if “electrolyte” has any relation to electricity, perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes. Your heart, muscles, and nerve cells all use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses to other cells. More on that in a moment!
Electrolytes help carry electrical signals throughout your body, which contribute to essentially every bodily function you can name. (The reason electrolytes are so often tied in with working out or athletic performance is that your cells use electrolytes to conduct electrical charges that make your muscles contract. But it’s important to remember that that’s not all electrolytes are responsible for – and not having enough doesn’t exclusively lead to muscle cramps.)
Certain chemical elements naturally hold positive or negative electrical charges, and when dissolved into a liquid, that liquid can then conduct electricity. Take salt water, for instance, a substance that conducts electricity extremely well. Salt is made up of positively charged sodium and negatively charged chlorine. Combine the two and they balance each other out. And at the most basic chemical level, that’s what electrolytes do for our bodies – they help maintain balance.
Electrically charged atoms are called ions, and our bodies use ions to transport chemical compounds in and out of cells.
What are electrolytes good for? Electrolytes’ benefits are numerous and impact nearly every system of our bodies.
Electrolytes are essential to our nervous systems. The brain fires electrical signals via nerve cells which communicate with all sorts of other cells throughout the body. These are called “nervous impulses” – and they stem from changes to the naturally occurring electrical charges in our nerve cell membranes.
These changes are caused by the movement of sodium (an electrolyte) across the cell membrane, setting off a chain reaction that moves more sodium ions along the entire nerve cell axon – and with it more change in charge!
When you think of electrolytes, muscles are likely not too far from your mind. That’s because calcium – you guessed it, an electrolyte – is required for muscle contraction. Calcium is what allows muscle fibers to slide as a unit and over one another as muscle contractions occur. And on the other end of the spectrum, the electrolyte magnesium is necessary for muscle fibers to slide in reverse, allowing for muscle relaxation.
You’ve undoubtedly seen a television commercial or some other form of advertisement for a sports drink, touting the benefits of electrolytes and hydration (not to spoil the fun too much, but these products should not make your sweat turn bright red or blue). And there’s some validity to those claims.
The cells that make up our bodies require water, both inside and outside of them to function properly. Electrolytes – particularly sodium – help maintain that balance via a process called osmosis – water moves through the wall of cell membranes from areas of higher electrolyte concentration to areas of lower concentration. This keeps cells from becoming over-full with or from shriveling up from dehydration.
If you thought you’d never hear about pH levels after high school chemistry class… think again! For a quick refresher, pH is a measurement of how acidic or alkaline (basic) a solution is. It is regulated by chemical buffers, so that changes to your internal pH levels are minimized, and – you guessed it – electrolytes helps with that process. Your body needs to regulate its internal pH levels at around 7.35 to 7.45 to stay healthy, and that isn’t attainable without electrolytes.
We’ve covered all the wonderful things electrolytes accomplish in our bodies, but what exactly does it mean when they become imbalanced, and levels get too high or low? In short, any instance in which fluids are lost more rapidly than they are replenished can cause issues. Excess heat, vomiting, or diarrhea are all common causes of electrolyte imbalance brought on by dehydration – and it’s why drinking plenty of fluids when sick is so important.
Electrolyte imbalance symptoms tend to be noticeable only in more extreme cases. If you are only mildly out of balance, there’s a good chance you won’t notice any. But if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, your electrolytes may be out of balance:
Fast or irregular heartbeat
Numbness and tingling
Muscle weakness and cramping
a diet lacking in key vitamins and minerals
congestive heart failure
certain cancer treatment
some drugs, such as diuretics
eating disorders, like bulimia
age – the kidneys of older adults become less efficient over time
If you’ve made it this far and you’re like us, you’re scrambling through your pantry looking for foods you’ve got on hand that are loaded with electrolytes. Well, let us spare you the trouble, and also commend you – you’re on the right track! A healthy diet, and one rich in electrolytes is the best way to maintain electrolyte balance.
Electrolytes are found int lots of foods, particularly plant-based one – fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds are all great sources, but so are dairy products. In the western diet, most people also get plenty of electrolytes in the form of table salt, which is made up of sodium and chloride.
Here’s a breakdown of which foods contain which electrolytes:
Sodium is found in abundance in pickled foods, cheeses and table salt.
Chloride is found in table salt.
Potassium is found in many Fruits and vegetables like bananas and sweet potatoes, and you can also find it in our mint greens smoothie!
Magnesium exists in seeds and nuts.
Calcium is present in dairy products, fortified dairy alternatives, and green leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach, or our greens smoothie.
And some electrolytes like bicarbonate are naturally made in our bodies – no need to stress over taking in enough of them.
Some people who are concerned they aren’t getting enough electrolytes from their diet may feel they ought to look into taking electrolyte supplements, like electrolyte supplements or sodium tablets. But for most people, a balanced diet ought to suffice.