Whether browsing the drinks aisle in your local supermarket or shopping online for fitness products, many of us have seen drinks and supplements promising to replenish our electrolytes.
But what are electrolytes, and why are they so crucial for our body functions?
And perhaps most importantly, do we need to add more electrolytes to our diets through supplements or sports drinks?
In this article you’ll discover the importance of electrolytes, why your body needs them and how you ensure you’re getting enough of them
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are salts and minerals, like sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. They’re found in our blood, and they help to conduct electrical impulses in the body.1
They play an essential role in the nervous system, keeping you hydrated, contracting muscles, and regulating the pH system.2
Electrolytes in the human body include:
We usually get all the electrolytes we need from maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.
However, there can be times when we have an electrolyte imbalance in the blood.3
What do electrolytes do?
Electrolytes are important. They’re vital for your body to function correctly, and they help with a wide range of processes.
These may include:
- Transmitting nerve signals
- Helping blood to clot
- Helping muscle contraction
- Building new tissue
- Regulating fluid levels
- Keeping your blood pH in a normal range4
Why does the body need electrolytes?
We all need electrolytes to survive. A number of automatic process your body carries out rely on a small electric current in order to function, and its electrolytes that provide this charge.
Electrolytes relate with one another along with the cells in your tissue, nerves and muscles. It’s getting that balance right that is vital for the healthy functioning of your body.
What is an electrolyte imbalance?
While we usually get enough electrolytes by eating well and drinking enough fluids, there can be times when electrolytes become imbalanced.
This could be due to dehydration, a poor diet, certain health conditions, and exercising intensely without hydration afterwards.5
An electrolyte imbalance can have a range of different symptoms, and these can be different from person to person.
It also depends on what type of electrolyte imbalance you are experiencing, as well as how severe the imbalance is.6
8 low electrolyte symptoms
Some symptoms of an electrolyte balance may include:7
- Shortness of breath
- Change in heartbeat
- Muscle spasms
- Blood pressure changes
If you’re concerned about any symptoms you are experiencing, it’s essential to talk to your doctor or visit your local emergency service.
A medical professional will be able to conduct an electrolyte test to find out the cause of your symptoms and treat it accordingly.8
How to get electrolytes
There are a number of ways you can get electrolytes into your body more frequently.
The most common way is through your diet, however, you can also look at supplements, sports drinks or electrolyte water to keep your levels right.
Dietary sources of electrolytes
Eating a healthy and balanced diet should give you all the electrolytes you need for day-to-day activities.
However, there may be times when you want to eat high-electrolyte foods to replenish what you might have lost during intense exercise, for example.
Some dietary sources for electrolytes may include:
- Fruit, like bananas, oranges, and melons9
- Leafy greens, like spinach and kale10
- Dairy products, like milk or yoghurt11
- Proteins, like white meat, shellfish, and beans12
You can also find the below minerals containing electrolytes in the following foods:13,14,15
- 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.
It’s also possible to add electrolytes to your diet through supplements, which may be beneficial during intense or prolonged exercise.
Electrolyte supplements are often available as sports drinks, but can also be taken as powders, capsules or tablets.16
Remember, though: you may not need to supplement your electrolytes if you’re eating well and drinking enough water.
Always speak to your doctor if you are concerned about any symptoms you are experiencing.
If you drink bottled or tap water, it's most likely to contain traces of sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are all electrolytes.
However, the amount you get from water compared to something that officially marketed as a sports drink can vary.
Getting the right amount of electrolytes is important because they can:
- Control your fluid balance
- Regulate your blood pressure
- Help your muscles contract — including your heart
- Maintaining the correct acidity of your blood (pH)
3 electrolyte drink benefits
May improve performance
Sports drinks, or electrolyte-enhanced waters, may benefit you after exercise.
It is thought that electrolyte drinks may help you replenish the water, electrolytes and energy lost during exercise.
During exercise, you will lose fluids through sweat.
In fact, 1-2% of your body weight can lead to decreased strength, speed and focus so it’s important to replace the water you lose.18,19
Sweat contains electrolytes as it includes a significant amount of sodium, as well as potassium, calcium and magnesium. On average, you lose around 1 gram of sodium with every litre of sweat.20
Rehydrate during illness
Short-term illnesses such as vomiting or diarrhea are not usually serious conditions.
Although when these symptoms continue for long periods of time they can quickly lead to dehydration if fluids and electrolytes are not replaced.
Infants and young children can be susceptible to dehydration from such illness, so it’s a good idea to keep on top of replacing the electrolytes you lose.
May help with heat stroke
Heat-related illness can range from mild symptoms to something a lot more serious.
Ordinarily, your body manages heat by releasing through your skin and sweating.
The key to preventing any such illness is to limit your time in hot environments and making sure you take on plenty of fluids. Electrolytes are very important in order to keep your body cool.21
When you’re hot, water and sports drinks are recommended for hydration ahead of other drinks.
This is not only to replace electrolytes but drinks that contain caffeine such as soft drinks, tea and coffee, or alcohol may worse your dehydration.
What electrolyte supplements are available?
Electrolytes can come in many forms, perhaps most popular is electrolytes drinks.
You can also get electrolyte gels, electrolyte powders and capsules – so if you’re looking at ways to get electrolytes there’s choice for various ways to get them.
Are electrolytes supplements suitable for everyone?
Electrolytes are essential for your body to function effectively. The biggest concern with electrolytes is when you have a low electrolyte count.
If you think you may have a low electrolyte count, you should speak to your doctor who will likely send you for an electrolyte test.
Electrolytes blood test
An electrolyte test will not only check the levels of electrolytes in your blood but can also find out whether there’s acid-base imbalance.
This entails a specific group of blood tests known as an electrolyte panel.
An electrolyte test can also be used to monitor the effectiveness of treatment for an imbalance that affects the functioning of an organ.
Treatment for an electrolyte imbalance will depend on which electrolyte is out of balance and by how much.
For example, if you have a sodium imbalance you may be advised to lower your salt intake (if sodium is too high) or reduce your fluid intake (if sodium is too low).22
Last updated: 5 October 2021