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What are electrolytes?

close up of electrolytes salt minerals
From U&E blood tests to benefits, our detailed guide covers all you need to know about electrolytes, including what they do and food sources.

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.

Skip to: What do electrolytes do? | Why do we need electrolytes? | Electrolyte imbalance | How to get electrolytes? | Electrolytes in food & drink  | Benefits | Supplements | Electrolyte test.

What are 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 in the human body include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Bicarbonate
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Phosphate

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 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.

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

8 low electrolyte symptoms

Some symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance may include:7

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Change in heartbeat
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Weakness

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

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 electrolyte 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.

Electrolyte foods

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

You can also find the below minerals containing electrolytes in the following foods:12

  • Sodium: Pickled foods, cheese, and table salt
  • Chloride: Table salt
  • Potassium: Fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocado and sweet potato.
  • MagnesiumSeeds and nuts.
  • CalciumDairy products, fortified dairy alternatives and green leafy vegetables.

It’s also possible to add electrolytes to your diet with electrolyte supplements, which may be beneficial during intense or prolonged exercise. Electrolyte supplements are often available as sports drinks, but can also be taken as electrolyte powders, capsules, or tablets.13

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.

 

Drinking electrolytes

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  officially marketed as a sports drink can vary. Electrolyte drinks can also be made at home: find our recipe for a homemade electrolyte drink here.

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
  • Maintain the correct acidity of your blood (pH)
 

3 electrolyte drink benefits

  1. May improve performance

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

  1. Rehydrate during illness

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.

  1. 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 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.

When to take electrolytes

To ensure you are making the most of taking added electrolytes, it’s good to understand when the optimal time is to take them.

When exercising, we tend to sweat, and without proper rehydration, this can lead to fatigue. Most of us are aware of hydrating after exercise with post-workout electrolyte drinks, but really you should be supporting your body before, during and after exercise.18 Electrolyte drinks should be taken before and after a workout to keep up fluid levels if you’re doing a high intensity workout or working out in a hot environment.

Electrolyte drinks can also be taken during the day when hydration levels have dropped, you need to recover from a tough workout, or your body needs more support. Electrolyte supplements can also be taken before bedtime to avoid night-time dehydration.

What electrolyte supplements are available?

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.

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 blood test.

Electrolytes 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

The final say

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.

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