Electrolytes Part 3: What Do Electrolytes Do?
Electrolytes are essential minerals required by every healthy adult—every day. The most well-known function of electrolytes is hydration. However, electrolytes do more than just regulate fluid balance. Depending on the mineral, electrolytes can perform a wide range of other functions within the body. For example, electrolytes can help move nutrients in and out of cells, balance acid-base (pH) levels, build new tissue, help blood to clot, enable muscle contractions, and transmit nerve impulses. Each electrolyte has a unique function within the body, but they all work together to help your body function properly. Let’s take a look at the main functions of electrolytes.
As you know, water is a crucial element in the body and every cell contains water. Water makes up more than half of the total water content in the body. It’s distributed all throughout in intracellular and extracellular fluid. Intracellular fluid is found within a cell and extracellular fluid is found outside and between cells – such as in blood plasma. These fluids all throughout the body are made up of water and electrolytes. Sodium is the main mineral found outside of the cell (extracellular) and is key in regulating fluid balance. The balance of water relative to sodium is essential. The total amount of water can impact the overall concentration of sodium and vice versa. When there are excessively low levels of water, then it can cause sodium to become concentrated and cause high levels of sodium in the blood, known as hypernatremia. When there are excessively high levels of water, then it can cause sodium to dilute and cause low levels of sodium in the blood, also known as hyponatremia. It’s essential to keep a normal balance between water and electrolytes.
The body is like a powerhouse of electricity that acts like an electrical system. Cells rely on an electrical current to help the body function properly. Electrolytes have the capacity to become electrolyzed, hence why the term has electricity built in. They are ionic, meaning they can either carry a positive or negative electrical charge when dissolved in water. They can conduct electricity based on their charge. Cations are positively (+) charged ions, which include sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Whereas anions are negatively (-) charged ions which include chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphate. The charges are extremely important, as cells rely upon electrolytes to help communicate messages between the brain and body. These signals are called nerve impulses. The body requires electrical impulses to make muscle cells contract and the heart to work. Too much or too little of one mineral can potentially create an imbalance, although an electrolyte imbalance in healthy adults is quite rare. The key minerals which help conduct nerve impulses include potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Calcium and magnesium are required for muscles to function properly. Both minerals aid in muscle contraction, which is required for the body to move. When calcium enters muscle cells, it stimulates muscle fibers to contract. When muscles contract, the fibers shorten and produce tension. Magnesium helps to regulate muscle contractions by counteracting calcium. When magnesium enters muscle cells it essentially blocks calcium to help muscles to relax. When muscles relax, the muscle fiber slides outward. Both calcium and magnesium bind in the same spots on muscle fibers, therefore they actually compete to bind to multiple binding sites in muscle. It’s important to have a balance of the two minerals so muscles can properly contract and relax.
All electrolytes work together in some shape and form. There may be a key electrolyte responsible for a certain function; however, often times the other electrolytes work in the shadows. For example, sodium and potassium also have a role in muscle contraction. Sodium and potassium enable muscles to contract. Sodium shifts into the cells and potassium shifts out in order help maintain water balance. Therefore, it’s important to consider electrolytes as a whole with a variety of essential bodily functions.