Although electrolytes are small in size, their importance in the body is huge and can mean the difference between feeling like a champion and feeling like garbage when it comes to physical and mental performance. Why are these little minerals so important? What are their benefits and should you supplement with them? Let’s get into it.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are small minerals in the body that have an electric charge. There are 6 electrolytes - Sodium, Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Chloride, and Phosphate. They can be found in a variety of different foods such as bananas, tomatoes, and spinach, as well as in sports performance products such as sports drinks and supplements. Typically sodium and potassium are the most popular in these products due to their beneficial effects for hydration [1, 2].
What are the Benefits of Electrolytes?
Electrolytes work in a variety of ways within the body, with one of the most important being to maintain fluid balance in the body, especially when excessive amounts of water are lost due to intense exercise [3, 4].
Muscle and Nerve Function
Muscles and nerve cells rely on the movement of electrolytes in order to function properly. These cells use electrical impulses to transmit messages across cells, and the movement of electrolytes is essential for this process to occur properly [4, 5]. If there is an imbalance in electrolyte levels, it can lead to tissues such as muscles becoming weak or contracting excessively .
Cells contain an entry barrier known as the cell membrane, which has protein channels embedded within it in order to transport different molecules. When electrolytes such as sodium and potassium move across these channels, water follows the higher electrolyte concentration through the process of osmosis. This gradient created across the membrane allows other nutrients to move into the cell such as glucose, which then can help to power different processes within the cell [1, 4].
Why/When Should I Supplement with Electrolytes?
Important electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, are lost in sweat during intense exercise. An extreme loss of fluids, such as after diarrhea or vomiting, can also lead to a loss of electrolytes. In these types of situations, the balance of electrolytes in the body needs to be restored in order for the body to work properly . Consuming electrolytes during or after intense exercise in the form of a sports drink or supplement can help preserve the balance and lead to better performance and recovery [3, 4, 6].
The Bottom Line -
Most people meet their electrolyte needs through a balanced diet, though an imbalance may occur if you’re dehydrated due to illness, excess heat, or excessive sweat loss during high intensity exercise. They’re essential for a variety of different bodily functions such as fluid balance, muscle and nerve transmissions, as well as the transportation of nutrients such as glucose [2, 4]. Electrolytes are important to replenish to keep balanced levels within the body. If you are training at a high intensity or are looking for something to optimize your performance, it may be effective to use a supplement or sports drink to maximize this replenishment.
Written by David Levinson, BS Nutrition, NASM CPT and CES
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