Health Tips

What Are Electrolytes and Why Does Your Body Need Them?

Grace Brock

We have all heard the term electrolytes. Sports drinks claim to replenish them and you’ve heard that they are necessary after hitting the gym. But what exactly are they? Do you actually need them?

Many might just know electrolytes as something needed after a workout. Medically speaking, electrolytes are defined as ions (positively and negatively charged particles) that are created when minerals and other salts dissolve and dissociate in water. For example, table salt (NaCl) dissolved in water breaks apart the positive ion (sodium or Na) and negative ion (chloride or Cl). These two ions are known as electrolytes.

What Makes Electrolytes So Important?

What makes electrolytes important is that they control how and where fluids are dispersed throughout your body. They maintain the balance of fluids inside and outside of each your cells. This balance ensures proper function of your hydration level, muscular function, pH level, and nerve impulses.

Here are the 7 major electrolytes found in your body that require maintenance:

  •  sodium (Na+) – Mainly responsible for regulating the total amount of water in the body.

  •  potassium (K+) – Essential to regulating heartbeat and muscle function.

  •  chloride (Cl) – Aids sodium in maintaining a proper balance of fluids throughout the body.

  •  calcium (Ca2+) – In addition to being essential for strong, healthy bones; calcium also helps transmission of blood clot, nerve impulses and muscle contraction.

  •  magnesium (Mg2+) – Regulates heart rate, immune system, nerve function, muscle function, stabilizes blood sugar, and promotes the creation of bones and teeth.

  •  bicarbonate (HCO3) – Help maintain pH levels; thus counteracts lactic acid buildup in your muscles during strenuous workouts.

  •  phosphate (PO42-) – Works with calcium to maintain strong, healthy bones and contributes to energy production in the cells (i.e., helps with muscle growth & recovery).

What Causes Electrolytes Imbalance?

Like a well-oiled machine, each electrolyte plays a vital role to ensure your body functions properly. So what happens when you become deficient in one or more electrolytes? Electrolyte imbalance is what happens. In fact, some chronic diseases have been associated with electrolyte imbalance.

One of the common issues caused by electrolyte imbalance, particularly if you are an athlete or frequently perform strenuous workouts, is muscle cramps. This is mainly caused during exercise or sports activities when your muscles become dehydrated. In addition, low levels of calcium and potassium can cause unexpected muscle cramps. Overall, electrolyte imbalance is the root of most muscle cramps. Besides exercise – there are myriad of things can be at the root of your body losing electrolytes, such as: 

  •        Dehydration

  •        Chronic alcoholism

  •        Broken bones

  •        Vomiting

  •        Malnutrition

  •        Diuretics

  •        Penicillin

  •        Laxatives

  •        Excessive sweating

  •        Severe burns

How to Balance Your Electrolytes

How to treat or prevent electrolyte imbalance, you ask? Most people (especially athletes) want to know the answer to this question after dealing with muscle cramps.

You might be thinking – but what about popular sports drinks like Powerade or Gatorade? Well a study revealed that sports drinks may delay muscle cramps, but does not prevent them. Also, drinking pickle juice (an old school remedy recommended by some health care pros) is not effective in prevent cramps either.

If you are opting for a sports drink – try and look for alternative options as opposed to traditional sports drinks. Our favorite? Greater Than Sports Drink. It’s made of nothing but all natural ingredients with the main component being coconut water.

Keeping a balanced nutritious diet will supply most bodies with enough electrolytes to live a healthy life. If you are an athlete or consider yourself a ‘high-activity’ person it is important to be conscious of your electrolyte levels in order to continue being the healthiest you that you can be. Investing in proper pre, during and post-workout supplements are the best ways to ensure proper electrolyte levels. 

Remember to contact your doctor or physician before engaging in any huge lifestyle changes.