If you’ve ever seen an ad for a sports drink or played sports, you’ve likely heard of electrolytes. But what are they exactly? Why does Gatorade have electricity in it, and why do you need it after you exercise? Is it really that important, or is it just a marketing strategy? In reality, “electrolytes” is an umbrella term for several nutrients that are important to the healthy function of our bodies. They’re naturally found in most of the fluids in our bodies — our blood, sweat, and urine for a few examples — and are actually created by some of the more common minerals we ingest!

What do Electrolytes do?

As we said, electrolytes aren’t a single thing, but rather a catch-all phrase for several common minerals that dissolve in liquid in our bodies. These minerals carry a slight electrical charge, positive or negative, that are used in the metabolic process. Two of the most common electrolytes are sodium and potassium, though others include calcium, magnesium, or phosphorus, to name a few.

Working Muscles

One of the major ways that electrolytes help our bodies is through promoting healthy muscle function. Specifically, electrolytes are known to help our muscles during exercise by aiding the movement of fluid to the muscles, keeping them hydrated. Studies also found that electrolytes are essential to normal skeletal muscle contraction. There’s also evidence of a link between a loss of electrolytes and muscle cramps, though scientists still aren’t sure what causes cramps.

Maintain Fluid and pH Balance

Balance is important to our health, and electrolytes play an important role in maintaining a few balances. One electrolyte in particular, sodium, is important for maintaining your fluid balance. Sodium triggers osmosis in your cells, which helps them from having too much or too little water. Electrolytes are also linked to your internal acid-base balance, which has wide-ranging effects on your body.

Nervous System

Electrolytes can also help your nervous system with sending out electrical signals throughout the body. They do this by stimulating electrical charges, called nerve impulses, which carry these signals to your organs and muscles. Where electrolytes truly are most famous for neurological benefits comes from individual electrolytes. Magnesium is well known to have connections to mental function and neurological disorders when you aren’t getting enough. Other electrolytes — like potassium, sodium, and calcium — also influence the nervous system.

What is an Electrolyte Imbalance and What Causes It?

Your electrolyte levels can vary depending on several factors like dehydration or sweating due to exercise. Some illnesses can cause dehydration through vomiting or diarrhea or feverish sweating, too. If your electrolytes are out of balance, it can cause some severe symptoms, like:

  • heart arrythmia
  • weakness
  • confusion
  • irregular blood pressure
  • extremely fatigue and tiredness
  • muscle spasms

The keto diet can actually trigger an electrolyte imbalance that practitioners of the diet call the “keto flu.” In the most severe cases, these imbalances can even become fatal. So, is this something you should be concerned about if you work out occasionally? Not really. Most people get enough electrolytes from their regular diet and are unlikely to exercise hard enough to lose too many electrolytes. Now, if you exercise at a high intensity for an hour or more or you have especially salty sweat (enough to leave a salt stain on your clothes), you’ll want to consider getting some electrolytes back into your body.

Good Sources of Electrolytes

Since there are many different minerals that are electrolytes, you have many ways you can keep your electrolyte counts healthy. Any healthier sodium-rich food, calcium-high dairy, or fruits and vegetables that are rich in potassium like bananas or spinach will be great sources of electrolytes. Of course, if you need more electrolytes now, you can always go with a sports drink like Gatorade. Sports drinks are packed with electrolytes, making them an excellent source of quick minerals. If you can, though, go with a sugar-free option, since many sports drinks are loaded with sugar and sweeteners. Don’t forget, you can also overload on electrolytes, especially sodium, so don’t go overboard.

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Electrolytes is one of the health terms that most people are vaguely aware of, but may not really know what they are. That said, they are very important to many basic functions of our bodies. Now that you know what they are, you’ll be able to keep your electrolyte levels balanced and your body functioning properly.