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What Are Electrolytes? Functions, Drinks, and Foods

Most of you have probably heard about electrolytes, but the question still remains—what are electrolytes? One of the coolest parts about our bodies is the way we use electrolytes to function.

Electrolytes are minerals in our blood and other body fluids that carry electrical charges. These charges are what help our muscles, nerves and other tissues function properly.

The main electrolytes in our bodies are sodium, chloride, potassium, and bicarbonate, and all of these are essential for our bodies to function properly.

Sodium, for example, helps to regulate our blood pressure, while potassium helps to control our heart rate.

So what is there to know about electrolytes? And, what are the functions of electrolytes in our bodies and our health? Let's take a look at everything you need to know about these essential minerals.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals in our blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge. These charges help to maintain the body's fluid balance and enable nerve impulses and muscle function (1).

Electrolytes work together to support bodily functions, but each electrolyte has a slightly different purpose and plays a different role within your body. Maintaining an appropriate electrolyte balance can help to support your overall health. 

The Electrolytes in Your Body

Your body contains several types of electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium. These electrolytes are found in your blood, urine, and body fluids. They are essential for your health and support proper functioning in your body.

Sodium Chloride: This is the major electrolyte in the extracellular fluid (ECF), and it is what we commonly call salt. It is responsible for maintaining fluid balance and blood pressure.

Sodium also aids in the transportation of nutrients and waste products in and out of cells. Without enough sodium, the body would swell with fluid.

Potassium: Potassium plays a major role in intracellular fluid (ICF) and is critical for proper cell function. It is involved in muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, and heart function. A potassium deficiency can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis.

Calcium: Calcium is essential for proper bone and teeth formation, blood clotting, and nerve and muscle function. A calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis and muscle cramps. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, but most of it is stored in the bones and teeth.

Magnesium: Magnesium is involved in energy production, muscle contraction, and nerve function due to its ability to regulate calcium and potassium levels in the body. A magnesium deficiency can lead to muscle weakness and cramps, as well as irregular heartbeat.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee included that magnesium was a nutrient that was under-consumed by about 50% of Americans (2), making this a nutrient we should all be paying closer attention to. 

Phosphorus: Phosphorus is involved in the structure of bones and teeth, energy production, and cell signaling. When phosphorus levels are too low, it can lead to bone loss and muscle weakness.

Bicarbonate: Bicarbonate is a buffer that helps to maintain pH levels in the blood. It also aids in the transportation of carbon dioxide from the cells to the lungs. There, it is exhaled, and the bicarbonate is recycled back into the blood. When bicarbonate levels are too low, it can lead to metabolic acidosis.

What do electrolytes do?

Electrolytes are specialized minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry electrical charges. They are needed for many important functions, including:

  • Muscle contraction
  • Nerve impulses
  • Heartbeat
  • Fluid balance

When there is too much or too little of an electrolyte in your body, it can cause problems. For example, if you have too much sodium, it can cause high blood pressure (3). If you have too little potassium, it can cause muscle weakness (4).

What is an electrolyte imbalance?

An electrolyte imbalance occurs when there is an abnormal concentration of electrolytes in the body. This can be due to a variety of factors, including dehydration, excessive sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Electrolyte imbalances can lead to a variety of symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness, and irregular heartbeat. If left untreated, an electrolyte imbalance can be dangerous and even life-threatening.

Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Fluids and electrolytes can be given intravenously in a clinical setting to treat an electrolyte imbalance, but it is also important to identify and treat the underlying cause.

What is electrolyte replacement therapy?

Electrolyte replacement therapy is a treatment used to correct electrolyte imbalances. It involves replenishing the body's stores of electrolytes with fluids and minerals that contain them.

This therapy can be used to treat dehydration, which is a common cause of electrolyte imbalances. It can also be used to treat other conditions that cause electrolyte imbalances, such as diarrhea, vomiting, and sweating.

Electrolyte replacement therapy can be done orally, through intravenous fluids, or both. Oral electrolyte solutions are available over the counter and can be taken as needed. Intravenous fluids are usually only given in a hospital setting.

Who needs electrolyte replacement therapy?

Anyone who is dehydrated or has an electrolyte imbalance may benefit from electrolyte replacement therapy. This includes people who are vomiting, sweating a lot, or having diarrhea.

It is especially important for people with certain medical conditions to keep their electrolytes in balance. These conditions include heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes.

Electrolytes also need special monitoring when someone is malnourished, had prolonged fasting, or is unable to eat for an extended period of time and begins to eat again. Electrolyte shifts are common and can be exacerbated in re-feeding syndrome, which can be dangerous if not caught and treated (4). 

Why should athletes care about electrolytes?

Electrolytes play a crucial role in many of the body's functions, including muscle contraction, nerve function, and hydration.

Athletes often sweat at higher rates and therefore lose electrolytes faster than most populations. Replacing just water with no electrolytes can result in hyponatremia or low blood sodium levels. For that reason, it's important for athletes to make sure they are getting enough of them, especially if they are sweating a lot.

Electrolyte imbalances, specifically low potassium, can lead to cramping, fatigue, muscle aches, cramps, constipation, and nausea.

In severe cases, electrolyte imbalance can even be life-threatening. Therefore, it's important to replenish electrolytes after sweating, especially if you are sweating a lot.

The best way to replenish electrolytes is to drink fluids that contain them, such as sports or electrolyte drinks, or to eat foods that are high in electrolytes, such as bananas, coconuts, and leafy green vegetables. 

If you're often sweating a lot, such as during intense exercise or in hot weather, it's also a good idea to keep some electrolyte tablets or powder on hand to add to your fluids.

What electrolytes are lost through sweat?

The main electrolytes lost in sweat are sodium, chloride, and potassium. There are small amounts of other electrolytes present in sweat, such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphate, but their concentrations are usually too low to have any significant effects.

Sweat is mostly water, with small amounts of electrolytes dissolved in it. As sweat evaporates from the skin, it takes the electrolytes with it. This can lead to electrolyte imbalances, particularly if a person is sweating a lot and not replacing the lost fluids.

So it is important to replenish electrolytes by drinking fluids that contain them, such as sports drinks, or by eating foods that are high in electrolytes, such as bananas, coconuts, and leafy green vegetables. 

How Much Water Should You Drink?

If you're often sweating a lot, such as during intense exercise or in hot weather, it's also a good idea to keep some electrolyte tablets or powder on hand to add to your fluids.

Electrolyte Drinks

Electrolyte drinks and electrolyte powders are a common choice for many athletes for repletion because they are quick and easy, and you can buy them ready to drink.  

Gatorade and Powerade have the leaders in the field, but recently more natural versions, usually as electrolyte powders, have been hitting the market that contains less added sugar and fewer ingredients, such as LMNT and Nuun.   

Most electrolyte powders are geared towards electrolyte repletion for athletes, so they contain carbohydrate replacement as well. Most often in the form of sugar. 

Making a homemade electrolyte drink or smoothie with natural fruit juice, coconut water, and salt can allow for carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement without added sugar. Some good fruits to include are coconut, grapefruit, watermelon, and oranges.  Adding lemon and lime will add additional electrolytes and a fresh flavor.

Electrolyte Foods

While sports drinks can be fast and effective, fruits and vegetables are also good sources of electrolytes.

If you're looking for foods that are especially high in electrolytes, you can't go wrong with these options:

Sodium Chloride 

  • Salt
  • Cured proteins
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Olives

Potassium

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Beets
  • Parsnips
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Kale
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Watermelon
  • Cantaloupe
  • Potatoes 
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Calcium

  • Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Dark leafy greens 
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Okra
  • Soybeans
  • Tofu
  • White beans
  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Sesame seeds

Magnesium

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Nuts (almonds and cashews)
  • Seeds (pumpkin and chia)
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Avocados
  • Edamame 
  • Dark chocolate

Being aware of the electrolytes you're losing and consuming can be beneficial for your general well-being, energy levels, and sports performance and recovery.