What Substances Are Electrolytes?

Sports drinks often contain electrolytes.
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While you may not have to plug yourself in after a long day, your body still runs on electricity. Different physiological processes in your body rely on substances called electrolytes to properly function. Health complications arise when there is an imbalance of electrolytes, which are essentially minerals that can carry an electrical charge. There are six common electrolytes, including sodium and potassium.

Electrolytes and Functions

If you’ve heard of calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium, then you are familiar with some common electrolytes. All these minerals are found in some amount in your body and carry an electrical charge as they circulate in your blood. This is an important facet of electrolytes because water in your blood is a poor electrical conductor. If you do not have enough electrolytes, your body cannot conduct enough electricity to perform necessary functions.

Electrolyte Functions

While sodium and potassium are the major electrolytes in your body, a number of them exist and work together to perform functions, such as conducting electrical impulses that transmit nerve messages. They also maintain muscle function and keep your heart beating and your respiratory muscles inhaling and exhaling. Electrolytes also help to maintain the pH balance of your blood. Because your blood pH must be tightly regulated, this is another reason electrolytes are extremely important.

Losing Electrolytes

If you’ve ever found your sweat tastes salty, that’s because it is. Perspiration contains electrolytes, including sodium. If you lose too much water from excessive sweating, you could be facing adverse symptoms from an electrolyte imbalance. You also can lose electrolytes if you have been ill with diarrhea or vomiting. Symptoms of excess electrolyte losses include swelling, nausea, weakness, confusion and an irregular heartbeat. If your physician suspects your electrolytes are imbalanced, she can order blood testing. Because electrolyte losses can be a life-threatening condition, don’t delay if you think you have lost these needed minerals.

Electrolytes and Your Food

You get the electrolytes you need from foods in your diet. Sodium and chloride are present in your diet in the form of salt, which is added as a flavor enhancer and preservative to many foods. If you love fruits and veggies, chances are you are getting enough potassium and remaining electrolytes in your daily diet. Go Ask Alice!, a health and wellness resource from Columbia University, recommends eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis to get enough potassium. If you know you’re going to be hitting the gym hard and losing electrolytes because of sweat, you may want to grab a sports drink, which contains replacement electrolytes.

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