Electrolytes Part 5: What Are Electrolytes?
Are Electrolytes Just for Athletes?
Electrolytes and water are not only important for exercising individuals, but they are important for everyday healthy adults. All individuals lose water and electrolytes to some degree every day. We naturally lose water through metabolism, ventilation, skin, sweat, urine and feces. Electrolyte loss can increase with increased sweat losses, because sweat is made up of both water and electrolytes. That’s why the conversation often exists between athletes. Those who may experience excessive sweat losses include elite athletes, endurance athletes and sport athletes. They can also include non-competitive active individuals engaging in physical activity and/or recreational activities like hiking and skiing. They can also include a wide range of high-intensity laborious jobs like someone in the military or firefighters. Sweat losses can also increase when you’re simply out in hot, humid or very cold weather. For example, a long-day of golf on a hot day or snow-skiing in the mountains can lead to some pretty heavy sweat losses. So, everyone needs electrolytes, but it those who sweat excessively should consider electrolytes.
Electrolytes Are Essential Minerals
Electrolytes are minerals, which include sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, magnesium and phosphorous. These minerals are critical to help keep fluid levels in the body in balance. They are required to help all aspects of the body to function properly including our heart and muscles. Electrolytes work closely with water. In fact, the balance of water is truly ruled by electrolytes. They are an essential duo and without them the body cannot function properly.
The body is always seeking to maintain a balance between water and electrolytes. Sodium is a key player in fluid balance. Too little water can lead to dehydration and higher concentration of electrolytes. Too much water can lead to diluting electrolytes in the body, leaving the body unable to function properly. It’s all a balancing act. However, all healthy adults have mechanisms in place to keep electrolyte and fluid balance tightly regulated.
Electrolytes Function Beyond Hydration
Electrolytes have many functions beyond fluid balance. Each mineral has a unique function within the body, but all work together to help your body function properly. Here are just seven notable functions to name.
1. Regulate fluid balance
2. Balance acid-base levels (pH)
3. Move nutrients in and out of cells
4. Enable muscle contractions
5. Control nerve impulses
6. Help blood to clot
7. Build new tissues
8. Regulate heartbeat
Dietary Sources of Electrolytes
Some electrolytes are made by the body, while others need to be consumed through dietary sources. For example, bicarbonate is considered an electrolyte, but can be naturally produced in the body. The remaining electrolytes can be sources through foods and beverages.
- Sodium: Table salt, condiments, processed foods, salted snacks (pretzels, crackers), pickles, olives, canned foods, vegetable juices, and smoked, cured and processed meats, fish and cheeses.
- Chloride: Table salt, sea salt, celery, tomatoes.
- Potassium: apricots, bananas, oranges, dried fruits, raisins, prunes, spinach, peaches, tomatoes, wheat bran, potatoes, eggs, dairy products (yogurt, milk).
- Magnesium: Cocoa, coffee, tea, lima beans, Swiss chard, spinach, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains.
- Calcium: Dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk), fortified soy products, tofu, almonds, dried beans, leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, spinach, mustard greens, collard greens.
- Phosphorous: Eggs, chicken, beef, turkey, salmon, and dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt).
Water and electrolytes are an essential part of life. Electrolytes include six core minerals required by all healthy adults every day. They can become more of a concern if engaging in high-intensity, long-duration activities through sport or lifestyle. It’s important to always consider your personal needs. Hydration can never be perfect, but the body works hard every day to help maintain fluid balance. Give your body dietary support by proactively drinking water and replenishing electrolytes as needed.