When you think about electrolytes, what is the first thought that typically comes to mind? For most, it is usually one of the many colorful and popular sports drinks that can be purchased just about anywhere these days. Many people have heard electrolytes are important, so they pay for these pricey drinks and gulp them down, believing they just got a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals.
However, what they're actually getting is an unhealthy dose of sugar - yikes!
What exactly are electrolytes?
Electrolytes may not make your body run, but they do help to make it run efficiently! Similar to a car battery, these crucial minerals found in your blood stimulate voltages that carry electrical impulses across your cells. This strong and powerful electrical energy keeps your organs working properly to help support a healthy body. In addition, electrolytes work to keep your body in balance. Balanced electrolyte levels are important for:
- Maintaining alkalinity of pH levels in the blood.
- Transmitting signals from muscles, nerves, and cells throughout the body.
- Regulating fluid levels in the human body.
- Contracting muscles, including the beating of your heart.
- Building new tissue and clotting blood.
With that in mind, it goes without saying that electrolytes are important! The main electrolytes and their functions are as follows:
- Sodium (Na+): an important mineral that regulates water and fluid in the body. It can be found in the bloodstream, with sodium levels being responsible for telling the kidneys how much water needs to be retained and how much should be excreted.
- Potassium (K+): found inside the cells and is critical for regulating water and fluid in the body. Proper potassium levels are also responsible for proper muscle function, including involuntary muscles like those surrounding the heart, which contracts rhythmically to keep it pumping.
- Chloride (Cl-): another vital electrolyte that is important for maintaining fluid balance in the cells is known as chloride. Like sodium, it's found outside the cells and helps to regulate the water going in and out of the cells. In addition, chloride also plays a large role in regulating the body's pH balance.
- Bicarbonate (HCO3-): also important in regulating the body's pH balance. Since it is alkaline, it helps neutralize excess acid in the digestive system and blood.
- Calcium (Ca++): notorious for its role in bone health. Proper calcium levels help to build strong bones and teeth and is important for repairing damaged muscle and bones. Calcium also is important for muscle contractions, including those of the heart and for nerve signaling.
- Phosphate (HPO4-): also plays a key factor in strengthening bones and teeth - just like calcium! It is also important in manufacturing proteins that the body uses to repair and grow cells.
- Magnesium (Mg++): arguably one of the most important minerals of them all. This super electrolyte is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body and is crucial for enzyme activity, cell function, muscle function, nerve signaling, regulating mood, and even sleep. Magnesium and calcium go hand in hand: without sufficient magnesium, your body can't absorb calcium.
What is an Electrolyte Imbalance?
All seven of these electrolytes work together in harmony to promote the body's central functions. However, the human body naturally loses these minerals through a variety of natural activities like breathing, perspiring, and urinating.
Here are some of the primary causes of an electrolyte imbalance:
- Excessive heat.
- Illness that causes fever, diarrhea or vomiting.
- Intense exercise or labor during hot weather.
- High fluid loss without sufficient fluid intake.
- Certain medications, including laxatives and diuretics.
- Medical conditions and respiratory ailments- renal dysfunction, diabetes, emphysema, etc
When levels of electrolytes aren't where they should be, you may experience uncomfortable symptoms, including dehydration - which is a condition where the body doesn't get enough fluids. When you don't have the right electrolyte balance in your body, you may experience some symptoms of electrolyte imbalance.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with low levels are:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Fast heartbeat
- Convulsions or seizures
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Muscle cramps, spasms, and twitching
- Muscle weakness
- Changes in blood pressure
An electrolyte imbalance can be determined by simple blood tests. However, certain evidence like loss of elasticity in the skin, slow reflexes, irregular heart rhythm, or ECG changes can also point towards the imbalance. In general, to help normalize an electrolyte imbalance, certain treatments can be done, such as administration of IV fluids, IV medications, oral medications, and even supplements--your health care professional can guide you through which route is appropriate for your specific levels.
Maintaining Body Fluids & Preventing Electrolyte Disturbances
Okay, so we already know that electrolytes are important, especially when it comes to a well-functioning nervous system and kidney function, but how do you stay hydrated to prevent an imbalance from happening in the first place?
Great question! Here are a few tips to help you to stay hydrated:
Drink more water.
Most of us know the recommendation to drink eight, 8-ounce glasses of water per day. However, since everyone is different, individual fluid needs tend to vary. The Institute of Medicine has set a general recommendation suggesting that men should consume about 125 fluid ounces per day while women should aim for roughly 91 fluid ounces. The key is to really pay attention to how often you're urinating. If you use the restroom every two to four hours, chances are you are probably doing your part to stay hydrated by drinking a sufficient amount of H2O. If you are using the restroom a lot less, your body could likely benefit from a little more water! Chances are overhydration isn't something you'll need to worry about because most people are actually chronically dehydrated and they don't even know it!
Try Hydration Supplements
Another great way to keep your body hydrated is with hydration supplements. These supplements make it easy to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs to avoid an electrolyte imbalance. Look for supplements that are designed to be fast-acting and potent like Adapted Nutrition's Hi-Lyte Concentrate. It can easily be added into any liquid to create a powerful electrolyte drink to support your active and healthy lifestyle.
Eat More Fresh Fruits and Veggies
Last on the list, but definitely not least: eat more fresh fruits and veggies to help keep your body hydrated! Healthy fruits and vegetables like watermelon, cucumber, and celery contain over 80% water, making them a great choice when looking to boost your fluid and mineral intake.
Electrolytes are important minerals that are necessary for your body to run properly. If you notice any of the signs that you could have an imbalance, it is important to do what you can to get your electrolytes back in check. Try drinking more h2O, taking an electrolyte supplement, and eating more fresh fruits and veggies to start!