Electrolytes are essential minerals that carry an electrical charge. These minerals are important for basic life function and come from our food and fluids. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, magnesium and bicarbonate are all electrolytes.
So what exactly do electrolytes do for the body? What happens when your body is low on electrolytes? Where do we even get them?
Keep reading to learn more about electrolytes, how they help keep you hydrated and tips for maintaining electrolyte balance.
As mentioned above, electrolytes are minerals that are vital for many body functions. Electrolytes regulate the fluid levels in your blood plasma and your body, balance your pH levels (the measure of acidity and alkalinity), help enable muscle contractions, transmit nerve signals, help blood to clot and help the body build new tissue.
Despite their numerous roles in the body, these minerals are often talked about in association with hydration. Sweat contains electrolytes, particularly a significant amount of sodium and small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. When you sweat from an intense workout, your body loses these electrolytes — on average, you lose around 1 gram of sodium with every liter of sweat.
According to a 2017 article titled “National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Fluid Replacement for the Physically Active” published in the Journal of Athletic Training, euhydration is defined at the state of optimal total body water content as regulated by the brain. In an euhydrated state, intracellular and extracellular fluid volumes are maintained with minimal physiological adjustment and the body's systems are able to function most efficiently. To ensure your body stays in a state of euhydration, you need to replenish the electrolytes lost through sweat.
Sodium, which is an osmotically active anion, is one of the most important electrolytes. Sodium is necessary for muscle and nerve function and helps control fluids in the body, impacting blood pressure. Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in the blood is too low. (Diagnosis is when the serum sodium level is less than 135 mmol/L.) Among the electrolyte disorders, hyponatremia is the most frequent. Symptoms may include headache, confusion, nausea and deliriums.
Other electrolytes lost through sweat are potassium, calcium and magnesium. These electrolytes are also important for the body’s functions. Potassium regulates your heart and blood pressure and is necessary for muscle contraction and transmission of nerve impulse. Calcium is also necessary for the transmission of nerve impulse, as well as skeletal mineralization, contraction of muscles, blood clotting and secretion of hormones. Magnesium is mainly involved in contraction and relaxation of muscles, proper neurological functioning and neurotransmitter release.
Dehydration is defined by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association as the process of losing body water, and it’s often accompanied by an imbalance of these electrolytes.
According to researchers at the University of Connecticut Korey Stringer Institute, once an individual loses 2% of their body mass from fluid losses, they become dehydrated, their body temperature and heart rate are negatively affected and impairments in athletic performance are noticeable. These impairments become more extreme with greater levels of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
According to a 2013 study titled “General characteristics of patients with electrolyte imbalance admitted to the emergency department” published in the World Journal of Emergency Medicine, fluid and electrolyte balance is a key concept to understand for maintaining homeostasis in the body. Electrolyte balance is critical for protecting cellular function, tissue perfusion and acid-base balance and managing many clinical conditions. (In fact, many diseases have been found to involve electrolyte imbalance.) An electrolyte disorder occurs when the levels of electrolytes in your body are either too high or too low hypernatremia or hyponatremia; in other words, they’re imbalanced. Electrolyte balance needs to be maintained, or the vital body systems can be affected.
The study notes that most of the important and prevailing electrolyte imbalances are hypo- and hyper-states of sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Signs of electrolyte imbalance can include fever, irregular heartbeat, fatigue, seizures, labored breathing, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, muscle weakness, headaches, irritability or numbness. Of the study’s 996 participants who had electrolyte balance, the most common symptoms of the patients were labored breathing, fever and systemic deterioration.
Both men and women can experience electrolyte imbalance; however, the study also found that 55% of participants who were found to have electrolyte imbalance were men.
You can get electrolytes through the fluids you drink. Coconut water, dairy products like milk, fruit juices, fruit and vegetable smoothies, electrolyte drinks like Pedialyte and sports drinks all contain a variety of electrolytes.
Which one is the best for replenishing lost electrolytes?
Sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, are especially popular among people who regularly workout or athletes who want to replace the electrolytes they lost through sweat. It’s true that sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes after (or during) long, intense exercise sessions. Sports drinks also have carbohydrates, which improve the rate of intestinal uptake of sodium, which in turn favors the retention of water. Pedialyte is an excellent rehydration beverage formulated against the WHO recommendations for electrolyte replacement for those with vomiting and diarrhea. Coconut water, milk, and fruit juices and smoothies are also excellent in the daily diet for additional electrolytes intake.
That said, water is still the best fluid to drink when exercise sessions are less than one hour. According to researchers, there is no added benefit of drinking a sports drink instead of drinking water during short workout sessions, as the body does not lose the amount of electrolytes that a sports drink would help mitigate. Sports drinks are designed for fluid and electrolyte replenishment during exercise lasting longer than one hour and less than an hour if you are a really salty sweater. Also, the added sugar from fruit juices and drinking sports drinks isn’t generally necessary for exercise sessions shorter than one hour. The artificial colors and flavors in most sports drinks are also unnecessary for anyone, including athletes. Look for sports drinks free from artificial colors and flavors.
For an effective amount of electrolytes based on your workout frequency, intensity and sweat levels, consider looking into a personalized hydration formula. Gainful offers a high-performance formula of 4 electrolytes and cane sugar to hydrate faster than water alone. The formula comes in 21 convenient single-serve packs. When you’re ready to replenish and hydrate, you just have to mix 8-16 oz of water with your formula. The caffeinated formula option contains 150mg of caffeine and 250mg of L-Theanine for a jitter-free energy boost, and all formulas come in two refreshing flavors: Lemon-Lime or Strawberry Lemonade.
Bonus: These hydration packs are non-GMO and 100% plant-based, with no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners.
Take Gainful’s quiz to find your own personalized hydration formula. (You’ll also find your perfect protein powder blend in the process.)
Make sure your diet is filled with healthy whole foods that contain electrolytes. Electrolyte-rich foods include strawberries, bananas, watermelon, oranges, spinach, kale, avocados, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, raisins, olives, lentils, beans, almonds, peanuts, soybeans, tofu, milk, yogurt, certain fish, turkey, chicken and veal.
Avoid diuretics. A diuretic is a substance that promotes (and oftentimes forces) diuresis, the increased production of urine. Because diuretics increase the excretion of water from bodies, there is a risk of electrolyte disturbances with usage.
Be conscious of your sodium intake. While sodium is an important electrolyte, consuming too much sodium every day can throw your body out of balance. We recommend athletes to add salt to cooking, but limit salt from processed foods in their daily diet. Too little sodium in an athletes diet makes it difficult to maintain hydration.
Drink lots of water or electrolyte-rich fluids after physical activity.
With your doctor, reassess the medications you’re taking. Inquire if any of your medications are affecting your electrolyte levels or causing a fluid imbalance (especially if you’re noticing signs of an imbalance).
Turn to the experts at Gainful for answers to any questions you may still have about replenishing electrolytes. Your Gainful subscription includes access to a Registered Dietitian, who can answer any lingering questions you may have about hydrating, electrolyte loss, getting enough electrolytes, the best source of electrolytes — anything at all.
Proper hydration is an important aspect of any health and wellness plan. No matter where you’re at on your fitness journey, we’re here to help you prioritize hydration and give you all the information you need to reach your goals.