What Electrolytes Are and Why You Need Them

When you hear the word electrolyte, what comes to mind? It seems most people know that they need electrolytes, especially after a good sweat. And the media has done a good job of making Gatorade the poster child for electrolytes. But do you really know what electrolytes are and why you need them? If not, let me explain...

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that dissolve in water in your body and produce charged ions. And many vital processes rely on the electrical current that’s created to function. The mineral electrolytes I’m referring to include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Bicarbonate
  • Phosphorous

Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that Gatorade is NOT the only source of these minerals. And in fact, the electrolytes in gatorade come from refined salt and synthetic sodium citrate and monopotassium phosphate. Plus, it contains a bunch of other junk, such as artificial colors, modified corn starch, and sugar. So, if you ask me, Gatorade is the WORST source of electrolytes.

Why does your body need electrolytes?

Maintaining a good balance of electrolytes is essential to your health. Because electrolytes mingle with each other and various other internal structures to assist with a variety of vital functions.

What are the key functions of electrolytes?

  • Maintaining an optimal fluid balance. So your cells don’t explode or shrivel up.
  • Regulating nerve function. Allowing your nerves (and other tissues) to send and receive critical signals throughout the body.
  • Contracting and relaxing muscle tissue. This includes your biceps as well as your heart.
  • Regulating the pH within your blood.

Now it’s also worth noting that these minerals play many other important roles in the body in addition to acting as electrolytes. For instance, calcium and magnesium are both necessary for strong bones and teeth. Calcium is also involved in blood clotting. And magnesium is involved in over 300 biological processes, including energy production and DNA synthesis.

Electrolyte Balance Disruptors

You probably already know that your body loses electrolytes through your sweat. And this could lead to an imbalance, especially after intense or prolonged activity. Which explains why it’s recommended to replenish them in these cases. And why your needs increase in warmer weather. But there are several other common situations that can lead to an electrolyte imbalance you should consider:

What causes an electrolyte imbalance?

  • Not drinking enough water. However, drinking too much water, especially in the absence of electrolytes, can also be a problem.
  • Rapid fluid loss from frequent bouts of diarrhea or vomiting.
  • Kidney disease. Because your kidneys are responsible for regulating the concentration of electrolytes.
  • Poor nutrition. Because processed junk food contains very few to no electrolytes. On the other hand, whole foods from nature are loaded with them.

Also, many people on my plans experience rapid weight loss. And this can lead to an electrolyte imbalance. Thus, paying close attention to your fluid and electrolyte intake during weight loss is very important.

What are the signs of an electrolyte imbalance?

There’s a wide range of symptoms you could experience from an electrolyte imbalance. It really depends on which electrolytes are out of whack. And whether your levels are too high or too low. But in general, below are some common signs:

  • Twitching
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle spasms
  • Erratic heartbeat
  • Raise or dip in blood pressure
  • Disorientation
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness

What are the healthiest ways to balance your electrolytes?

  1. DON’T DRINK GATORADE! (or any sports drink really)
  2. Eat a nutrient-rich diet full of colorful fruits and veggies, meats from healthy, pasture-raised animals, wild fish, nuts, and seeds
  3. Stay hydrated, especially when temperatures are high
  4. Replenish after prolonged and/or intense exercise as well as after rapid fluid losses

What are the best sources of electrolytes for replenishment? 

While all electrolytes are important and must be consumed daily, the two primary electrolytes that are lost through sweat include sodium and potassium. However, for light exercise, filtered water is often all you need as long as you’re also eating a mineral rich diet. When water isn’t enough, adding ⅛ - ¼ teaspoon of sea salt to your water and eating half of an avocado or a full banana will do the trick. However, if you add ⅛ - ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and a cup of spinach to your post-exercise shake, you’ll get a healthy dose of sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus along with many other nutrients. Now that’s impressive! Many people rely on coconut water, which is another option. It is a good source of potassium. And one cup provides approximately 250 mg of sodium. But after intense or prolonged exercise, especially in warm weather, this might not be enough for fitness buffs. And two cups deliver quite a bit of sugar.

What should I know about electrolytes?

  1. Electrolytes come from specific minerals when they dissolve in water in your body. The electrical current they create fuels many vital functions.
  2. Staying hydrating and eating a mineral-rich diet is essential to maintain a healthy balance of electrolytes (as well as lose weight and feel your best).
  3. Sea salt, fruits, and veggies are MUCH better sources of electrolytes for replenishment than any sports drink on the market.
  4. Your electrolyte needs are unique to you. They depend on your activity level, your fitness level, the weather, your diet, and your overall health. And they may vary from day to day. Thus, it’s important to give thought to the current state as well as listen to your body and adjust accordingly.

Keep thinking Big and living BOLD!

Dr. Kellyann