Electrolytes are compounds that contain an electrical charge. In the human body, electrolytes facilitate many essential functions. Here’s what you need to know about how electrolytes work, and whether it’s a good idea to drink electrolyte drinks.
1) The human body contains seven essential electrolytes
The seven electrolytes essential to the human body are sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate.
Sodium maintains the body’s fluid content and facilitates healthy nerve and muscle function.
Potassium helps your heart and other muscles contract. It moves nutrients into cells and pulls waste out of them. Potassium is also essential to maintaining healthy blood pressure.
Calcium supports healthy bones and teeth. It also helps to move signals from the brain to nerve and muscle cells in the body.
Bicarbonate keeps the body’s acid-base levels in balance.
Magnesium helps the body maintain healthy blood sugar levels and healthy blood pressure. It also helps the heart contract at a regular pace. And magnesium is essential for building proteins, bone cells, and strands of DNA.
Chloride regulates fluid levels within the body. It also regulates blood pressure and blood volume and keeps the body’s pH in check.
Phosphate supports healthy bones and teeth. It’s also used by the body to build cell membranes and DNA.
2) Electrolytes can be depleted in several ways
Electrolyte levels can be low for several reasons. In some cases, people don’t consume enough nutrients in their diet. In other cases, people have underlying medical conditions that prevent their bodies from absorbing, using, or storing the nutrients they need.
Also, electrolytes can be lost at an accelerated pace. Common causes of this form of electrolyte depletion include sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea.
3) Depleted electrolytes need to be repleted to restore healthy function
Sodium and potassium are the most depleted electrolytes when people have excessive sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea. Low levels of these electrolytes can prevent the body from functioning properly. In severe cases, low levels of sodium and potassium can be dangerous -- or even fatal. Staying hydrated is one of the most effective ways to avoid a heat-related illness.
A low sodium level (hyponatremia) can cause fatigue, restlessness, confusion, brain swelling, and seizures.
A low potassium level (hypokalemia) can cause fatigue, muscle spasms, constipation, shortness of breath, and palpitations. In severe cases, hypokalemia can cause fatal cardiac arrhythmias.
The good news is that these imbalances can quickly be corrected through oral or I.V. solutions, and the body can quickly return to a healthy state.
4) Electrolyte drinks can play a role in replacing lost electrolytes
If you’re well-hydrated and eating a healthy diet, your electrolyte levels are likely normal. However, if you’re sweating excessively, or if you have prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, your electrolytes can quickly become depleted.
In these cases, rehydrating with plain water can improve your fluid status, but water alone won’t replace the essential electrolytes you’ve lost. Therefore electrolyte-containing drinks can be useful -- because they rehydrate you while simultaneously replenishing your electrolytes.
5) Be careful about what you drink
If you have any underlying medical conditions, consult a health care provider before drinking electrolyte-rich drinks, since in some cases ingesting extra electrolytes can do more harm than good.
If you do drink an electrolyte drink, make sure you check the label first, since some brands contain high amounts of unhealthy ingredients like sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial food dyes.
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Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant