Just like antioxidants, “electrolytes” is another buzz word that gets thrown around in the food marketing industry! We associate electrolytes with sports drinks, and we know they’re good for us – but what actually are they? Do we need to be getting them from sports drinks?
What are electrolytes?
Mineral salts are common in the diet, the most popular being table salt – sodium chloride. When these salts are dissolved in water, they separate into ions – a fancy word for an element with a charge. Sodium chloride, for which the chemical symbol is NaCl, is then broken into sodium, Na+, and chloride, Cl–.
While water is a poor conductor on its own, ions dissolved in water carry electrical current, because they are charged! Therefore, the ions are given the name electrolytes.
The essential minerals in our diet can become ions. Positively charged ions, also called cations (because cats are positively great! . . . Well, that’s how I remember it.), include sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Negatively charged ions, anions, include chloride, phosphate, sulfate, and a few others.
Positively and negatively charged ions must be in balance in electrolyte solutions. As well, water is attracted to the ions. Water molecules like to stick to them! So, if there is an imbalance of electrolytes within or outside of a cell in your body, the electrolytes will move in order to maintain balance, carrying water with them. Electrolytes help water get around in our system this way.
What do electrolytes do for my body?
Because electrolytes carry a charge, they conduct electricity. Our body uses electricity in order to twitch our muscles into moving, as well as send thoughts to our brain. Electrolytes are important for proper muscle function and control, as well as nerve impulses traveling throughout your body!
Bicarbonate, an anion, also helps with digestion by maintaining the acid-base balance in your small intestines.
How do we lose electrolytes?
We all know that after a great workout, it’s important to replenish with water and, in very rigorous exercises, electrolytes! But building up a sweat isn’t the only way electrolytes can be lost. While sweating is probably the way we are most familiar with losing water (and electrolytes within it), being sick can cause losses, too. Extreme vomiting or diarrhea causes dehydration, and with it those ions are being expelled. Even traumatic wounds and burns can cause an imbalance.
In severe cases of dehydration like these, it’s important to replenish fluids and electrolytes. An emergency fix is called oral rehydration therapy, and it’s ridiculously easy to concoct. Heat up 2 cups (1/2 L) of water and add 4 tsp of sugar and 1/2 tsp of salt. Just that small amount will help someone who is severely dehydrated get back on track, and give them the energy (via sugar) to recover.
Where can I get electrolytes in my diet?
Sports drinks are great if you’re an athlete, but the majority of those who drink them don’t really need them. Your kids at little league are not losing so much fluid that they need Gatorade. Plus, those drinks are loaded with added sugars, and that’s a whole different discussion! For casual sports games or a normal workout, water is your best fuel. You can replace your electrolytes just by eating healthy foods afterward!
The foods that provide you with the major and trace minerals provide you with electrolytes – that’s what they are! A well-balanced, healthy diet will provide all of the minerals that are essential to our bodies. Use a reasonable amount of table salt to season your home cooked meals. Get a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, eggs, and meats (if you eat it!). You can find great sources for each individual mineral on their respective posts on the Nutrition in a Nutshell page! (Minerals are coming this week!)
Next time you are feeling dehydrated, rather than reaching for a sports drink for your electrolytes, try a glass of water and a healthy meal! I guarantee you’ll feel even better!