Electrolytes are critical for the functioning of our body. Many bodily processes require electrolytes as they’re necessary for nerve function, blood pressure regulation, and hydration.
Chemically speaking, electrolytes are substances that can conduct electricity when they’re dissolved in water (ions). We generally get these substances from our diet – food & drink – in the form of essential minerals.
Today’s blog takes a deep dive into the importance of electrolytes – what they are, how they function, and why need them.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge. They’re found in your blood, urine and sweat and are vital to specific processes that keep your body functioning as it should. The easiest way to start with electrolytes is to think about salt.
Generally, when people think about salt, they think of its negatives. We know that too much sodium in your diet can be unhealthy. But, electrolytes don’t necessarily mean only sodium (though that is an essential component), it refers to a whole group of minerals.
Calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium dissolve into ions when they enter our body. These ions or electrolytes perform specific functions, in two ways: they regulate water flow from our cells and spark our nerve impulses. In addition to regulating fluids, electrolytes have many functions. These include:
- transmitting nerve signals from the heart, muscles, and nerve cells to other cells
- supporting blood clotting
- keeping your heart beating by electrically stimulating muscle contractions
- maintaining the blood’s pH level
It helps to think of electrolytes are your battery charger. Just as a device lags or stops functioning if it doesn’t have sufficient power, so does our body if we don’t get enough electrolytes.
Types of electrolytes
- Sodium: Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells also plays a role in critical body functions. The movement of sodium is what sparks nerve cells and facilitates the transfer of impulses in the nervous system. Too little or too much sodium can damage these processes.
- Calcium: Calcium, as we all know, is vital for bone health. But, it’s also present in our bloodstream. It is important for our blood clotting, muscle contractions, and nerve impulses. When there’s not enough calcium, your body compensates by taking it from your bones. This leads to a decrease in bone density and causes osteoporosis. Calcium is also a co-factor for many key enzymes.
- Potassium: Potassium regulates the heartbeat and muscle function. It’s an important part of the cell structure.
- Magnesium: Magnesium works to maintain and balance normal muscle and nerve function and heart rate. It also helps our immune systems and stabilizes blood sugar.
These are just a few of the important electrolytes. There are several more, in addition to these, that are vital for bodily processes.
Different sources of electrolytes
Most electrolyte intake occurs through our diet. Below is a list of foods to eat more of to build your electrolyte balance.
- Leafy green vegetables: Spinach and kale are good sources of calcium and magnesium.
- Dairy products and fish: Milk, eggs, and butter are good sources of calcium, along with certain seafood. Seafood also provides a source of protein which is essential for cell growth.
- Beans: Lentils, kidney beans, and soybeans contain magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous.
- Nuts & seeds: Almonds, cashews, and seed butters are good sources of magnesium and phosphorus.
- Olives: Olives and pickled foods are recommended to increase sodium intake, rather than simple table salt.
Drinks that naturally contain electrolytes are:
- milk, which contains calcium and potassium
- orange juice, which contains potassium and, sometimes, calcium
- coconut water, which contains potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium and is naturally low in sugar
The Bottom Line
The key takeaway is that electrolytes are critical for our body to function at optimized efficiency. Most people can get balance electrolytes in the form of their diet itself. An electrolyte imbalance may occur for a wide range of reasons and is often linked to dehydration or excessive sweating.
If you feel like you may be suffering from a chronic electrolyte imbalance, consult your doctor to get an official treatment plan.