Electrolytes: Definition, Functions, Imbalance and Sources
Electrolytes are involved in many essential processes in your body.
Therefore, you need to get an adequate amount of electrolytes from your diet to keep your body functioning as it should.
This article takes a detailed look at electrolytes, their functions, the risk of imbalance and possible sources.
“Electrolyte” is the umbrella term for particles that carry a positive or negative electric charge (5Trusted Source).
In nutrition, the term refers to essential minerals found in your blood, sweat and urine.
When these minerals dissolve in a fluid, they form electrolytes — positive or negative ions used in metabolic processes.
Electrolytes found in your body include:
These electrolytes are required for various bodily processes, including proper nerve and muscle function, maintaining acid-base balance and keeping you hydrated.
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.
Electrolytes are crucial to keeping your nervous system and muscles functioning and your internal environment balanced.
Nervous System Function
Your brain sends electrical signals through your nerve cells to communicate with the cells throughout your body.
These signals are called nervous impulses, and they’re generated by changes to the electrical charge of the nerve cell membrane (6Trusted Source).
The changes occur due to the movement of the electrolyte sodium across the nerve cell membrane.
When this happens, it sets off a chain reaction, moving more sodium ions (and the change in charge) along the length of the nerve cell axon.
It allows muscle fibers to slide together and move over each other as the muscle shortens and contracts.
Magnesium is also required in this process so that the muscle fibers can slide outward and muscles can relax after contraction.
Water must be kept in the right amounts both inside and outside each cell in your body (8Trusted Source).
Electrolytes, particularly sodium, help maintain fluid balance through osmosis.
Osmosis is a process where water moves through the wall of a cell membrane from a dilute solution (more water and fewer electrolytes) toward a more concentrated solution (less water and more electrolytes).
Internal pH Levels
To stay healthy, your body needs to regulate its internal pH (10Trusted Source).
pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a solution is. In your body, it’s regulated by chemical buffers, or weak acids and bases, which help minimize changes in your internal environment.
For example, your blood is regulated to stay at a pH of around 7.35 to 7.45. If it deviates from this, your body can’t function properly, and you become unwell.
Having the right balance of electrolytes is fundamental to maintaining your blood pH level (10Trusted Source).
Electrolytes are essential for keeping your nervous system and muscles functioning. They also ensure that your body’s internal environment is optimal by keeping you hydrated and helping regulate your internal pH.
Disturbances in electrolytes can have a harmful effect on your health and can even be fatal in rare cases (14Trusted Source).
Electrolyte imbalances often occur due to dehydration caused by excess heat, vomiting or diarrhea. This is why you should be mindful of replacing any lost fluids when it’s hot or when you’re sick (15Trusted Source).
If you have a mild electrolyte disturbance, you probably won’t experience any symptoms.
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Numbness and tingling
- Muscle weakness and cramping
If you suspect you have an electrolyte imbalance, be sure to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
Electrolyte imbalances most commonly occur when people are severely dehydrated due to vomiting, diarrhea or excessive sweating. Severe imbalances can interfere with the way your body functions.
When you sweat, you lose both water and electrolytes, especially sodium and chloride.
As a result, long periods of exercise or activity, particularly in the heat, can cause significant electrolyte loss.
It’s estimated that sweat contains about 40–60 mmol of sodium per liter on average (22Trusted Source).
Since around 90% of American adults consume way more than this, most people don’t need to replace sodium lost from sweat (26Trusted Source).
However, certain populations, such as endurance athletes who are exercising for more than two hours or those who exercise in extreme heat, may want to consider drinking electrolyte-enriched sports drinks to replace their losses (27Trusted Source).
For everyone else, getting the normal amount of sodium from foods and drinking water to remain hydrated is enough.
You lose water and electrolytes, particularly sodium, when you sweat. However, the sodium consumed through your diet is normally enough to cover any losses.
The best way to reach and maintain electrolyte balance is through a healthy diet.
The main food sources of electrolytes are fruits and vegetables. However, in the Western diet, a common source of sodium and chloride is table salt.
- Sodium: Pickled foods, cheese and table salt.
- Chloride: Table salt.
- Potassium: Fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocado and sweet potato.
- Magnesium: Seeds and nuts.
- Calcium: Dairy products, fortified dairy alternatives and green leafy vegetables.
Electrolytes like bicarbonate are naturally produced in your body, so you don’t need to worry about including them in your diet.
Electrolytes are found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts and seeds.
Some people drink electrolyte water or supplement with electrolytes like sodium and calcium to ensure they get enough.
However, a balanced diet that includes sources of electrolytes should suffice for most.
Your body can typically regulate electrolytes efficiently and keep them at the right levels.
But in some circumstances, such as during bouts of vomiting and diarrhea where electrolyte losses are excessive, supplementing with a rehydration solution that contains electrolytes could be useful (31Trusted Source).
The amount you’ll need to consume will depend on your losses. Always read the instructions on over-the-counter replacement solutions.
Also note that unless you have low levels of electrolytes due to excessive losses, then supplementing can cause abnormal levels and possibly illness (32Trusted Source).
It’s best to first consult your doctor or pharmacist before supplementing with electrolytes.
If you eat a balanced diet that contains good sources of electrolytes, supplementing is usually unnecessary.
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge when dissolved in water.
They’re vital for your nervous system, muscles and maintaining an optimal body environment.
Most people meet their electrolyte needs through a balanced diet, though imbalance may occur if you’re dehydrated due to illness or excess heat.
If you suspect you have an electrolyte imbalance, speak with your doctor.
Electrolyte Water: Benefits and Myths
Whether you drink bottled or tap water, it most likely contains trace amounts of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
However, the concentration of electrolytes in beverages may vary greatly. Some brands add a significant amount of minerals along with carbs and market their water as a sports drink, while others only add a negligible amount for taste.
This article discusses the potential benefits of electrolyte-enhanced water, as well as common myths surrounding it.
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water.
They’re distributed through the fluid in your body and use their electrical energy to facilitate important bodily functions (1).
Electrolytes are essential for (2):
- Controlling your fluid balance.
- Regulating your blood pressure.
- Helping your muscles contract — including your heart.
- Maintaining the correct acidity of your blood (pH).
Common electrolytes include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Electrolyte waters are enhanced with these charged minerals, but the concentrations vary.
Unless it’s labeled “distilled,” your regular bottled water provides at least a small amount of electrolytes, and many products contain trace amounts for taste.
Tap water has electrolytes as well. On average, 34 ounces (1 liter) of tap water contain 2–3% of the reference daily intake (RDI) for sodium, calcium and magnesium but little to no potassium (3).
In contrast, the same amount of popular electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks packs up to 18% of the RDI for sodium and 3% of the RDI for potassium but little to no magnesium or calcium (4).
Electrolytes are charged minerals important for maintaining optimal body functions. Common electrolyte beverages include enhanced waters and sports drinks.
Electrolyte-enhanced waters, particularly sports drinks, may benefit athletes by helping replenish water, electrolytes and energy lost during exercise.
During physical activity, you need additional fluids to replace the water lost in sweat. In fact, a water loss of as little as 1–2% of your body weight can lead to decreased strength, speed and focus (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
Sweat also contains electrolytes, including a significant amount of sodium, as well as small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. On average, you lose around 1 gram of sodium with every liter of sweat (5Trusted Source).
Sports drinks are recommended over plain water to replace fluid and electrolytes if you tend to sweat a lot, exercise longer than one hour or in hot environments (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
You should note that sports drinks are designed for athletes, not sedentary individuals. Along with electrolytes, they contain calories from added sugar. In fact, a 20-ounce (591-ml) bottle of Gatorade packs a whopping 30 grams of sugar (4).
Sports drinks are designed for athletes and contain electrolytes along with carbs to replenish the nutrients lost through sweating. They’re recommended for prolonged exercise and exercise in hot weather.
In the short term, vomiting and diarrhea are usually not serious conditions. However, severe or persistent symptoms can quickly lead to dehydration if fluids and electrolytes are not replaced.
Infants and children are especially vulnerable to dehydration from severe vomiting and diarrhea. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using an oral rehydration solution at the first signs of illness to prevent dehydration (8Trusted Source).
Oral rehydration solutions contain water, carbs and electrolytes in specific proportions that are easy to digest. A popular example is Pedialyte.
Sports drinks may be tolerated by older children if diluted to 1 part water, 1 part sports drink. Adults typically tolerate both oral rehydration solutions and sports drinks without issues (8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
Importantly, electrolyte beverages may not be sufficient for treating severe dehydration. If diarrhea lasts more than 24 hours or if you’re unable to keep fluids down, seek medical advice (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
Illnesses, such as vomiting and diarrhea, can cause you to lose fluid and electrolytes rapidly. Oral rehydration solutions are recommended for replenishment.
Hot environments put you at risk for a variety of heat-related illnesses, which range from mild heat rash to life-threatening heatstroke.
Normally, your body manages heat by releasing it through your skin and by sweating. However, this cooling system may begin to fail in hot weather, causing your body temperature to rise to dangerously high levels (10Trusted Source).
The key to preventing heat-related illnesses is to limit your time in the heat. However, getting plenty of fluid and electrolytes is also extremely important to help your body stay cool (11Trusted Source).
In hot environments, water and sports drinks are recommended for hydration over other beverages. Drinks containing caffeine such as soda, coffee and tea may worsen dehydration, as can alcohol (12).
Prolonged exposure to heat puts you at risk for heatstroke. Consuming adequate amounts of fluids and electrolytes is recommended to help your body stay cool.
Adequate hydration is essential for overall health. Water is necessary for virtually all body functions, including transporting nutrients, regulating body temperature and flushing out waste and toxins (2Trusted Source).
Both electrolyte and regular water count towards your daily fluid needs, as do other beverages such as coffee, tea, fruit juices and milk.
It’s a common misperception that electrolyte water is superior to regular water for hydration. In reality, it depends on the circumstances.
More specifically, electrolyte water may be beneficial if you’re at risk for quick losses of minerals. You may want to consider an electrolyte-enhanced beverage if:
- You’re exercising for more than one hour (6Trusted Source).
- You sweat heavily during exercise (5Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
- You’re ill with vomiting or diarrhea (8Trusted Source).
- You will be exposed to heat for longer periods (5Trusted Source, 12).
Outside of sports, hot weather and illness, regular water works just fine to meet your day-to-day hydration needs.
Though electrolyte water may have benefits under certain circumstances, regular water is sufficient for meeting your general hydration needs.
Making electrolyte water is a cost-effective and healthy way to replace fluid and electrolytes when needed.
Here is an easy lemon-lime sports drink recipe to try at home:
Yield: 4 cups (946 ml)
Serving size: 1 cup (237 ml)
- 1/4 tsp of salt
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) of lemon juice
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) of lime juice
- 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) of unsweetened coconut water
- 2 cups (480 ml) of cold water
Unlike store-bought versions, this recipe provides a refreshing boost of electrolytes without added sugar or any artificial colors or flavors.
Electrolyte water is enhanced with minerals your body needs to function optimally, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and chloride.
While it’s unnecessary to drink electrolyte-enhanced beverages all the time, they may be beneficial during prolonged exercise, in hot environments or if you’re ill with vomiting or diarrhea.
Sports drinks and other electrolyte waters can be pricey, so you may want to consider a homemade version. Not only are these cheap to make, but they provide electrolytes without artificial colors or flavors.