When we think of electrolytes we think of sports drinks. But do you really know what electrolytes are and how important they actually are for the proper functioning of our body?
Electrolytes are essential because they are what the cells of the nerve, heart and muscles use to maintain voltages across their cell membranes. They transport electrical impulses such as nerve impulses and muscle contractions across themselves and to other cells.
Electrolytes are also very important macro minerals that help the body absorb minerals. Electrolytes are the smallest of chemicals important for the cells to function and allow the body to work. Certain electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium are critical in allowing cells to generate energy and maintain the stability of the cell wall, as well as to function in general.
Electrolytes help control fluid levels in the body and are also critical in maintaining normal pH levels, which ensures the correct electric potential between nerve cells, in turn enabling the transmission of nerve signals.
Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by illness, medications or dehydration. If electrolytes become significantly low, weakness, muscle spasms, convulsions, changes in blood pressure and nervous system disorders can occur.
Some of the major electrolytes for your body include:
Sodium is found most often outside the cell in the plasma of the bloodstream. It plays a significant part in water regulation in the body, since water follows were sodium goes.
Sodium assists the electrical signals in the body allowing muscles and the brain to work. It is one-half of the electrical pumps that keeps sodium in the plasma and potassium inside the cell.
Too much sodium is called hypernatremia and is usually associated with dehydration caused by sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, exercise or fever.
Hyponatremia, or too little sodium, is caused by excess water consumption that in turn results in a dilution of the sodium in the blood, which overwhelms the kidney’s compensation mechanism.
Either imbalance can cause cells to malfunction resulting in lethargy, confusion, weakness, swelling, seizures and coma.
Potassium is most concentrated inside the cells of the body and is an essential mineral required for healthy energy metabolism and cellular functions. It is needed to preserve proper alkalinity of body fluids and assists with muscle contraction and nervous system activity. Potassium regulates fluid and mineral balance, facilitates kidney function, works with sodium to normalize the heartbeat and is vital for normal blood pressure.
Too much potassium is known as hyperkalemia and can be life threatening because it causes abnormal electrical conduction in the heart that can lead to heart rhythm problems.
Hypokalemia or too little potassium can be the result of vomiting, diarrhea, sweating and taking medications such as diuretics.
Low potassium levels in the blood can produce symptoms such as muscle weakness, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, high cholesterol, edema and headaches.
Calcium is needed for healthy bones and teeth, muscle contractions, nerve transmission, immune system function and cardiovascular health. Calcium may also safeguard the body against cardiovascular disease by reducing high blood pressure and lowering cholesterol.
Hypercalcmia, or too much calcium, is associated with kidney stones, depression, and abdominal pain and can cause heart rhythm disturbances.
Too little calcium is hypocalemia and is usually associated with eating disorders or lack of parathyroid hormone.
Magnesium is involved in almost every function of the body and is essential for cardiac health, energy production bone and protein formation, the healthy function of nerves and muscles, and blood sugar regulation.
Magnesium is often a forgotten electrolyte that is involved with metabolic activities in the body, including relaxation the smooth muscles that surround the bronchial tubes in the lung, skeletal muscle contraction and the excitation of neurons in the brain. Studies have confirmed the effectiveness of magnesium in the treatment of arrhythmia, migraine, and severe asthma.
Too much magnesium in the blood (hypermagnesemia) most often occurs in patients with kidney function problems that only allow a limited excretion of magnesium.
Symptoms can involve heart rhythm abnormalities, muscle cramps and weakness, and the nervous system can be potentially effected with confusion, hallucinations, and seizures.
Hypomagnesemia or too little magnesium in the blood stream can have many reasons including dietary deficiencies. Common causes of low magnesium include alcoholism and the associated malnutrition that goes with it, chronic diarrhea, and medications such as diuretics.
Symptoms can include heart rhythm disturbances, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting as well as breathing difficulties.
Chloride together with potassium and sodium keep the right amount of fluids in the body.
Other electrolytes include bicarbonate, an important component that keeps the acid-base status of the body in balance. Phosphate is a building block used by the cell for energy, and works with calcium. Phosphate is one of the main energy carrying molecules of the cell.
Keeping your electrolytes in balance is easy when you follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, including taking a quality food based multivitamin that contains macro minerals. These macro minerals are electrolytes. Good dietary sources of electrolytes such as whole grains, nuts, bananas, meats and seafood should be included in your diet, and will usually give you all the electrolytes you need.
If you should get ill or dehydrated seek an electrolyte water or coconut water, as these will not contain the high sugar content common in sports drinks. Coconut water has five electrolytes your body needs, potassium, (coconut water has 15 times the amount of potassium than in the average sports drink) sodium, magnesium, phosphorous and calcium. Coconut water is one of the best and safest options to re-hydrate after a strenuous workout. Should you require additional sodium a pinch of natural salt can be added to the coconut water.
Fresh, pure water is still the best thing to help you stay hydrated if you are exercising moderately. Only when you have been exercising for long periods, and sweating profusely, would there be a need to replenish with more than water.
Should you have serious symptoms associated with electrolyte deficiency, please always contact a physician or visit your local hospital emergency room.