What are electrolytes and why do we need them?

We often hear talk about replenishing electrolytes. But what exactly are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that are, well, electric. They include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, and magnesium, amongst other minerals. These minerals carry a small electric charge in a fluid environment. Our body needs electrolytes to function. Basically, electrolytes keep our cells, tissues, and fluids active and able to communicate within our bodies. They help our heartbeat and relax, our muscles contract and allow our nerves to transmit. But we can be electrolyte deficient. For instance, we lose them through sweat. Hence, this is why athletes are quick to replenish them after exercise. Our kidneys tend to filter out too many electrolytes, but too few can affect our health.

Who is susceptible to electrolyte depletion? We are all susceptible to electrolyte depletion, but some groups are more so than others. Aside from athletes, older people are particularly susceptible to electrolyte deficiency. People with kidney disease, diabetes, and heart failure also need to watch for deficiencies. Although dehydration caused by our summertime activities can deplete us, we can become deficient in electrolytes any time of year.

Here’s a look at some of the main electrolytes our body counts on:

Sodium: Sodium controls the water content in our body. It is mainly found in our blood, plasma, and lymph fluid. It maintains a balanced environment outside of our cells, while potassium helps regulate the environment inside cells. Sodium and potassium must be in sync for electrolytes to be balanced and to maintain a healthy functioning body. Although too much sodium has been thought to cause high blood pressure, the most common electrolyte disorder in the U.S. is sodium deficiency.

Bicarbonate: Key for digestion, bicarbonate helps the body maintain a balanced pH. Bicarbonate acts as a buffer if the body becomes too acidic (for instance lactic acid builds up after a workout) or if it becomes too basic, from a lack of acid. A balanced pH is necessary for our body to function properly.

Potassium: While sodium works outside cells, potassium helps keep things running inside cells. It plays a key role in helping our cells absorb water. It’s also essential for muscle and heart function and can help lower blood pressure. We lose both potassium and sodium through sweat.

Calcium: Calcium is the most abundant of the electrolytes in our body. It helps with muscle and nerve function as well as blood clotting. If there is too little calcium in our blood, then our body will draw calcium from our bones. This can lead to osteoporosis if we’re not paying attention. But many people now say that we have plenty of calcium within our body. Instead, the problem lies in a lack of Vitamins C, D and K. A deficiency in these vitamins affects our body’s ability to absorb calcium properly.

Magnesium: This mineral is critical to nerve function, muscle development, blood sugar regulation and blood pressure maintenance. Muscle cramps are often caused by a lack of magnesium.