What Are Electrolytes and Why Do We Need Them?
We all have that one friend who sprints home after a jog or sweaty yoga session to “replenish her electrolytes.” If you’ve ever been left behind in the locker room wondering what does that even mean?, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s start with the basics. We know we need electrolytes, and that they’re linked to hydration and basic human function. Many of us also have some sort of cognitive association between electrolytes, extreme forms of exercise, and (more likely than not) Gatorade.
What else is there to know about these minerals? According to nutrition experts and doctors, a lot. Here, we asked a registered dietitian and a physician to help us break down the facts on electrolytes.
What Are Electrolytes, Exactly?
“Electrolytes are particles that have a positive or negative electrical charge,” explains Jonathan Waitman, MD, medical director for specialized nutrition support at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical Center, and medical expert at the Institute of Culinary Education. “In the human body, electrolytes refer to essential minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium.”
According to Abbie Gellman, RD, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, electrolytes are always found in pairs, so a positive molecule (i.e., sodium) would be accompanied by a negative molecule (i.e., chloride). “It is important to consume these nutrients in proper balance for optimal health,” Gellman says. Why? “Because electrolytes are required for various bodily processes, like proper nerve and muscle function, water distribution and hydration, kidney and adrenal function, maintaining acid-base balance, and heart function.”
According to Gellman, balance is key. “For example, too much sodium disrupts the balance and a diet high in sodium and low in potassium may lead to high blood pressure.”
Are Electrolyte Drinks the Best Sources of Electrolytes in the Diet?
Nope. “The best source of electrolytes is a healthy diet rich in whole foods, fruits, and vegetables,” Dr. Waitman says. Gellman agrees, saying that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables should provide plenty of electrolytes. “For mild dehydration, fruit juice and tea can be helpful,” she adds.
Are There Populations Who Need More Electrolytes?
“Anything that creates excessive fluid loss—like sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, urination, dehydration, some disease states, and use of some drugs—can create a risk of loss of electrolytes,” explains Gellman.
So if you’re working out, does that mean you should up your intake of electrolytes? Not exactly.
“Yes, anyone who is exercising vigorously and sweating is losing electrolytes,” says Dr. Waitman. But that doesn’t mean you need to supplement. “Regular exercise should not warrant intake of electrolyte sports drinks,” explains Gellman. “Most workouts are fine, as long as you stay hydrated throughout and have a variety of fruits and vegetables afterward and throughout the day. For example, a smoothie with a range of fruits or vegetables and a protein-based liquid (such as kefir or yogurt) is a great way to replenish electrolytes.”
If you do believe you’re low on electrolytes, both experts say to look out for symptoms such as fatigue, low blood pressure, and muscle spasms—but specific symptoms will vary depending on which mineral you’re deficient in. “For example, potassium deficiency may be characterized by confusion, irritability, weakness, heart disturbances, and issues with nerve and muscle contraction,” Gellman explains.
A Final Word on Sports Drinks
“Sports drinks do contain electrolytes—but they also contain lots of sugar or artificial sweeteners, which can have deleterious effects,” says Dr. Waitman. So before you run out for a bottle of something neon blue, try upping your intake of whole foods—fruits, veggies, whole grains—instead.