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 electrolyte supplements or sports drinks?
In this article you’ll discover the importance of electrolytes, why your body needs them and when to take electrolytes.
Electrolytes are salts and minerals, like sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate which are found in our blood, and 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 are important. They’re vital for your body to function correctly, and they help with a wide range of processes. These may include:
We all need electrolytes to survive. A number of automatic processes your body carries out rely on a small electric current in order to function, and its electrolytes that provide this charge.
Electrolytes work 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.
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
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 blood test. The results of the electrolytes test can be used to find out the cause of your symptoms and treat it accordingly.8
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 electrolyte supplements, sports drinks, or electrolyte water to keep your levels right.
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.
Sports drinks, or electrolyte-enhanced waters, may benefit you after exercise.
It’s thought that electrolyte drinks may help you replenish the water, electrolytes and energy lost during exercise through sweat. In fact, losing 1-2% of your body weight in fluids can lead to decreased strength, speed, and focus so it’s important to replace the water you lose.14
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
Short-term illnesses such as vomiting, or diarrhoea 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.15
Drinking electrolytes after vomiting may help to hydrate your body and help to replenish electrolytes that have been lost.16 Opting for electrolyte drinks after other illnesses or when you’re experiencing diarrhoea can also help to replenish lost electrolytes, avoid dehydration, and help you feel better sooner.
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.
If you are experiencing symptoms of the dreaded hangover, electrolyte drinks can be a good remedy to ensure you are replacing lost fluids and electrolytes typically lost when drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it removes fluids from the body, leaving you feeling weak and dehydrated.17 Find out more about taking electrolytes for a hangover here.
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 make sure you take on plenty of fluids. Electrolytes are very important to keep your body cool.21
When you’re hot, water, sports drinks and electrolyte drinks are recommended for hydration ahead of other drinks. This is not only to replace electrolytes; drinks that contain caffeine such as soft drinks, tea and coffee, or alcohol may worse your dehydration.
To ensure you are making the most of taking added electrolytes, it’s good to understand when the optimal time is to take them.
Electrolytes can come in many forms, perhaps most popular is electrolyte drinks.
You can also get electrolyte gels, electrolyte powders and capsules – so if you’re looking at ways to get electrolytes there’s plenty of choice.
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 blood test.
An electrolyte blood test will not only check the levels of electrolytes in your blood but can also find out whether there’s acid-base imbalance. This involves 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 it shows 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).19
Now you understand what electrolytes are and the importance of adding extra electrolytes to your diet; especially if you have an imbalance, are hungover or increasing your exercise.
Remember, it’s important to always consult a doctor first if you are experiencing any symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance.
Joined Holland & Barrett: Jan 2018
Bsc in Nutrition, Registered Associate Nutritionist and Certification in Pre and Post Natal Nutrition
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018.
Donia has over 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.