When we hear the word “electrolytes”, most of us think of sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, and Propel, and know that we should drink a bottle after a heavy workout or spending all day working outside in the sun.
But what most of us don’t know is what those electrolytes are actually doing for the body, besides replacing the salt in our sweat. While most Americans don’t need more sodium in their diets in general, if you’re working out daily, eating low carb, or living an active lifestyle, there’s a good chance you need more electrolytes in your system to feel your best.
So, what are electrolytes, why do you need them, why don’t we always have enough of them, and what can we do to replenish them? Read on to find out!
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity in the body, assisting the electrical impulses that are sending information. If you didn’t know, every message your brain sends to the rest of your body is sent via an electrical impulse - this is why we can use a defibrillator to jump-start someone’s heart.
In the same way electricity finds it easier to travel through water, the electrolytes in our body ensure these impulses can get to where they need to go as smoothly as possible.
The different electrolytes are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate, phosphate, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, molybdenum, copper, and chromium. Some of these electrolytes are more essential than others - the 3 main electrolytes being chloride, potassium, and sodium.
Why is chloride important for the body?
Chloride interacts with the other electrolytes to keep the body’s fluids balanced, and is essential for healthy function of the digestive system, as it is an important part of stomach fluid.
Why is potassium important for the body?
Potassium is found in fruit and vegetables and is essential for fluid regulation, healthy nerve function, and blood pressure regulation.
Why is sodium important for the body?
Sodium (which comes from salt) almost always comes with a chloride molecule attached, which makes getting enough chloride easier. Sodium is essential for fluid regulation, blood pressure regulation, healthy nerve function, and assists in nutrient absorption.
Why are electrolytes essential?
Without electrolytes, the body can’t function. One of the reasons why people can die of dehydration is due to a lack of electrolytes in the body; a lack of sodium will cause cerebral edema and a lack of potassium will cause a heart attack. Moving away from the worst-case scenario, here are some of the other reasons electrolytes are essential:
Regulate fluid - Electrolytes regulate fluid in the body through osmosis through the cell membrane. Explaining exactly why this happens can get into the weeds of chemistry fairly quickly (you can read on here if you want to do a deep dive), but know that the electrolytes in your cells work like water on two sides of a damn - they want to keep the gates open so there’s equal water on each side.
Help the body produce energy - Many sports drinks use this point for marketing, but it’s really the sugar and caffeine that boosts energy levels instantly. How electrolytes actually help give you more energy is through the ability for messages to get around the body quicker, which means your body can work optimally to give you more energy. If you’re low on electrolytes, the inside of your body will be working sluggishly, and so you will, too.
Strengthen your skeleton - Calcium is an electrolyte that’s essential to maintaining healthy blood clotting, muscle contraction (including a regular heartbeat), and other nerve functions as well as what we all know it best for, which is giving you healthy bones.
Balance the body’s pH - Sodium, chloride, potassium, and bicarbonate all help to maintain the pH balance of the blood. When you have an electrolyte imbalance, your body becomes more acidic, which can lead to metabolic acidosis.
Helps clear waste out of your cells - the regulation of fluid process we discussed earlier also facilitates the passing of nutrients into your cells and waste products out of them.
Cause muscular contractions - when you move, the electrolytes in your body are facilitating that by allowing the electrical impulse to tell your muscle what to do. This doesn’t just go for the muscles you choose to use, it also goes for another incredibly important muscle, called your heart.
What are the symptoms of low electrolytes?
Symptoms of low electrolytes include headaches, nausea, fatigue, muscle cramping, brain fog, and not feeling well or right. When electrolytes become seriously low, the body will start to shut down.
Why do we become deficient in electrolytes?
In most cases, an electrolyte imbalance will leave us feeling low and like we aren’t working at our best. We may just put it down to not getting enough sleep or having such a hard day or workout.
Here are some ways our electrolyte levels can get low:
Drinking too much water
Let’s preface this by saying that most people aren’t drinking enough water, so don’t take this as a sign to stop trying to get those 8 glasses in. That said, if you’re the kind of person who will guzzle a gallon of water in the hour or two before a long run, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.
Drinking more water dilutes the electrolyte levels in the blood, which makes it more difficult for the body to work properly. In extreme cases, it leads to hyponatremia, which starts as cramps and general fatigue but can lead to serious and even fatal consequences, such as seizures and brain damage. Most of us won’t need to worry about this after our daily workout, but if you’re an endurance athlete, make sure there’s sodium in your water (even adding a little salt can help).
Not eating right
Whether you’re fasting, not eating enough, or not eating enough of the right things, a constrictive diet can lead to electrolyte imbalances. If you’re dieting to lose weight, you must give some thought to what electrolytes you’re getting and from where.
A good electrolyte drink (watch out for those full of sugar - they’ll often do you more harm than good) before and/or after a workout will help, and if you’re doing a diet that may leave you lacking (either through restrictions or fasting), it’s not a bad idea to supplement from time to time if you’re feeling fatigued.
We won’t list all the foods that contain electrolytes here, you can find extensive lists with a quick Google, but you can find sodium and chloride in most store-bought foods or you can add it yourself with some table salt. You can find potassium and other electrolytes in fruits and vegetables, as well as animal products.
Eating a Ketogenic Diet
Keto has become all the rage in recent years because it can get such good results for those who stick to it. Not only physically, but mentally.
Note here that there’s a difference between opting for low-carb meals (like replacing bread or potatoes with a salad) and keto. A ketogenic diet requires you to (on average) eat less than 30g of carbohydrates a day.
Our bodies have two sources of fuel - fat and carbohydrates. By switching to fat for fuel from food and lowering our carbohydrates, this opens the door to fat burning.
When you’re doing a ketogenic diet, you must take a supplement to cover all your micronutrient needs to avoid electrolyte imbalances.
How do we make sure we get enough electrolytes?
Getting enough electrolytes isn’t complicated, you just need to be mindful of when you may be using them without replenishing them (such as a hard workout or doing strenuous yard work, especially on hot days).
Make sure you eat a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, and if you’re following a whole food diet, don’t be afraid to add salt to your meals for taste. If you’re going to be doing something where you’re likely to lose electrolytes faster than you’ll naturally consume them, drink an electrolyte-rich drink. We typically find it difficult to meet our daily electrolyte requirements through diet alone, so if you’re working out it’s especially important to supplement your diet with additional electrolytes.
When choosing an electrolyte drink or supplement, it's best to buy a formula you can add to water over off-the-shelf drinks. Our Electrolyte formulas come in Unsweetened, Juicy Mango, Watermelon Candy, and Tropical Pineapple, all of which contain no artificial colors, flavors, or sugar, so you can rehydrate with peace of mind knowing you’re not putting anything bad into your body - just the essential electrolytes you need in the amounts you need them.
To get yours, click here.