What are electrolytes, and why do we need them?

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Health Advisor

09 September 2016

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are small, slightly charged particles that our body needs for a wide range of functions.

When salt dissolves in water, the compound breaks up into its individual components – for example one of the most common salts, sodium chloride (NaCl) breaks down into Na+ and Cl-. As you can see the sodium has a slightly positive charge and the chloride has a slightly negative charge. Na+ and Cl- are two common electrolytes.

However, these aren’t the only important electrolytes! Other electrolytes in our bodies include magnesium (Mg++), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca++),phosphate (HPO4-) and bicarbonate (HCO3-).

Electrolytes are commonly found in our diet and also in the fluids we drink.

What do they do?

Electrolytes are involved in a wide range of functions.

They are particularly important for maintaining hydration levels, as the movement of sodium and potassium in and out of cells determines how much water our body retains or flushes out.

Our nerve cells need these slightly charged particles to help carry electrical impulses around the body. This is important for a healthy nervous system, good mental health and proper sleep. It also vital for muscle function, as electrical signals need to be able to travel across muscles to tell them when to relax and contract. 

Without the correct electrolytes (or the correct balance of electrolytes), your muscles may become weak and you may experience cramps, twitches or spams. You may also experience disorders such as anxiety or sleep problems, as well as fatigue and joint and bone disorders. An imbalance will also affect your hydration levels and your acid-alkali balance, but can also affect your respiratory system and even your immune system.

In fact, the whole body depends on this delicate balance of electrolytes to keep it functioning properly.

The main electrolytes and their functions

There are 7 key electrolytes:

Sodium (Na+) is important for regulating water and fluid balance in the body. It can be found in the bloodstream and indicates to the kidneys how much water needs to be retained and how much should be excreted. It helps generate electrical impulses along nerve cells which carry messages to and from the brain – this means it is also important in muscle function.

Too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure, and since sodium is found in salt, this is why we are always being told to limit the amount of salt in our diets.

Potassium (K+) is found inside cells and is important for regulating water and fluid in the body. It is also important for muscle function, including involuntary muscles like those surrounding the heart, that contract rhythmically to keep it pumping. It is also important for generating the electrical impulses that are important in nerve signalling.

Potassium can be imbalanced by too much sodium.

Chloride (Cl-) is another electrolyte that is important for maintaining fluid balance in the cells. Like sodium, it is found outside the cells and helps regulate the water going in and out of cells. It also plays a role in regulating the body’s pH balance.

Bicarbonate (HCO3-) is also important in regulating pH in the body. Since it is an alkali it helps neutralise excess acid in the blood and digestive system.

Calcium (Ca++) is famous for its role in bone health. It helps build strong bones and teeth, and is important for repairing damage to bones and muscle. Too little calcium can result in rickets in children or osteoporosis in adults. It is important for muscle contractions, including those of the heart, and nerve signalling.

Too much calcium can contribute to kidney stones.

Phosphate (HPO4-) also plays a key role in strengthening bones and teeth. It is also important in manufacturing proteins that the body uses to grow and repair cells.

Too much phosphate can displace calcium and weaken bones. This is why fizzy drinks, which contain phosphoric acid, are often linked to bone problems.

Magnesium (Mg++) – well a better question might be what doesn’t magnesium do? It is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body, is vital for cell function, enzyme activity, muscle function, nerve signalling, sleep and regulating mood.

A lack of magnesium can contribute to muscle cramp, PMS symptoms, menopause symptoms, fatigue and low mood. Magnesium and calcium are closely linked as without sufficient magnesium you can’t absorb calcium.

These electrolytes work in combination to promote the body’s central functions, so it is not enough to focus simply on the ‘most important’ one. For example, to contract and relax muscles your body requires calcium, potassium, magnesium AND sodium.

What can cause an imbalance?

There are many reasons why the electrolytes in your body may become imbalanced. These include:

  • Strenuous exercise – this results in water loss and sodium loss, which contributes to heat cramps
  • High temperatures and heat waves – again, increased sweating means you lose more water and sodium
  • Malabsorption of nutrients – if you are not digesting food properly you cannot absorb enough electrolytes, no matter how well you eat
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea – these can result in water loss with concomitant electrolyte loss
  • Kidney problems – if your kidneys are not functioning properly they will struggle to maintain your electrolyte and water balance
  • Some drugs, such as diuretics – this promotes water loss through excess urination, which can throw your electrolyte balance off
  • Age – this is more of a risk factor than a cause. For many reasons, as you get older your body is less efficient at maintaining electrolyte balance. This could be because of reduced kidney function or poor diet, or because the digestive system naturally slows down as you age, so you are less efficient at absorbing important nutrients.

So where can I find electrolytes?

For many of us, sufficient levels of electrolytes can be found in our diets. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of electrolytes so if your diet is rich in these foods you should be fine.

However, there are often times when we need a boost in electrolytes – for example after exercising, after experiencing high temperatures, after dehydration or if we experience heat exhaustion. Over summer many of us will require more electrolytes as the warmer weather causes us to sweat more.

Athletes, gym goers and runners will likely need to replace their electrolytes regularly all year round.

Sports drinks are rich in electrolytes, as they are specifically designed for sports people and athletes to replace their electrolytes. However, they are also high in sugars and artificial chemicals so they are not a good option for regular use. They may be useful in emergencies though – for example following an episode of heat exhaustion or food poisoning.

For regular replacement of electrolytes, a healthier option would be advisable. Plant waters such as coconut water, birch water or maple water are naturally high in electrolytes and natural sugars. They are effective, but for many they are an acquired taste.

We recommend our Balance Mineral Drink for a few reasons. Firstly, it contains three key electrolytes – magnesium, calcium and potassium –which are all vital for the body’s central functions. In addition, it contains zinc to help balance pH in the body – which is useful because, as we discussed earlier, pH balance can be thrown off if electrolytes are imbalanced. It also contains vitamin D3, which helps absorb calcium from the diet, and l+ lactic acid which supports good bacteria in the gut to make sure you absorb more nutrients from your food.

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