We all know what it feels like to get an electrical shock, like when we experience a buildup of static electricity and then touch something made of metal (shocking us in more ways than one). Not a pleasant experience, although electrical charges are not alien to our normal function as human beings. Many of your body’s processes depend on a small electric current to operate, and substances known as electrolytes provide this charge while interacting with each other as well as cells in our tissues, nerves, and muscles.
Electrolytes are chemicals that, when mixed with water, conduct electricity, influencing an assortment of bodily functions that include regulating nerves and muscles, hydrating the body, maintaining a balance of blood acidity and pressure, and assisting in the reconstruction of damaged tissue, per medicalnewstoday.com.
Once electrolytes dissolve in our bodily fluids, they take on either a positive or negative charge, and this is what equips them to conduct electricity and move electrical charges or signals throughout your body to wherever they are needed, per healthline.com.
If ever there is an imbalance of electrolytes in our bodies, we can experience symptoms such as overall weakness, twitching of muscles, and – if left untreated – even seizures and disruptions in heart rhythm.
Other symptoms can include changes in blood pressure, confusion, numbness, and bone disorders. Imbalances involve either an elevated concentration of a particular electrolyte that becomes too high for the body to regulate, or levels that are too low and thus affect overall health. Common reasons for an imbalance of electrolytes include:
- kidney disease
- severe burns
- failure to properly replenish electrolytes or fluids (severe dehydration) after exercise
- extended periods of vomiting or diarrhea, such as that associated with a 24-hour stomach virus
- poor diet
- imbalance of acids and alkalis
- bulimia and other eating disorders
- congestive heart failure
- cancer treatment
- age, as kidneys become less effective over time
Types of Electrolytes
Common types of electrolytes include the following, in alphabetical order:
- Bicarbonate. It helps to regulate heart function and acts as a buffer to help maintain healthy pH (acidity) levels, per medicinenet.com.
Sources include: bread, and assorted fruits and vegetables.
- Calcium. A vital component of bones and teeth as well as being involved in the movement of nerve impulses and muscles, and helping with the clotting of blood.
Sources include: milk, spinach, kale, and sardines.
- Chloride. Not only does it help balance electrolytes, it assists in maintaining healthy pH levels and is essential to proper digestion.
Sources include: tomato juice, soups, olives, and lettuce.
- Magnesium. This vital element helps maintain a healthy heart rhythm, contributes to nerve and muscle function, bolsters the immune system, helps to regulate blood glucose levels, and is important for the production of DNA and RNA, per healthline.com.
Sources include: halibut, spinach, and pumpkin seeds.
- Phosphorous/phosphate. Helps strengthen bones and teeth, and it aids cells in manufacturing the energy required for tissue growth and repair.
Sources include: tuna, pork chops, and tofu.
- Potassium. Potassium is the major positive ion found inside our cells, per medicinenet.com. This multifaceted electrolyte carries out numerous duties, including aiding in the transmission of nerve impulses, pitching in for maintenance of bone health, regulating blood pressure, and promoting proper muscle contraction.
Sources include: bananas, plain yogurt, and potatoes with skins.
- Sodium. One of the minerals found in salt, sodium is a requisite for muscle and nerve function as well as playing a key role in controlling bodily fluids, thus affecting blood pressure, per healthline.com.
Sources include: tomato juice, soups, and table salt.
Eating a proper, well-balanced diet, as seen in the section above listing food sources for electrolytes, is important for maintaining healthy levels of electrolytes. There’s also the matter of replenishing when electrolytes are likely lost during physical activity, such as that associated with extended periods of exercise or any sort of activity in hot weather, as is the case across much of America at this time of year.
In regard to exercise-induced loss of fluids and electrolytes, some things to keep in mind, per the International Marathon Medical Director’s Association:
- If your urine is clear to light yellow prior to a race or workout, you are properly hydrated.
- Drink a sports drink containing electrolytes and carbs for an event or workout expected to last longer than 30 minutes.
- Drink only when thirsty.
- A general rule of thumb is to limit intake of fluids to 4-6 ounces for every 20 minutes of a race.