What Are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes. Sports drink companies make a living off of touting electrolytes within the beverage.  But what exactly is an electrolyte?

Is it one of those tossed around words to make a beverage sound scientific and push products to consumers? Or is it one of those textbook words used in back in high school science class that escapes memory? Well, while it depends on your science class, it is an important part of how your body functions, and there is merit to sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade marketing the added electrolytes. Here is everything you need to know about what an electrolyte is and what it does within your body. 


What is an Electrolyte?


If you were to just look at the word, you might think it has something to do with electricity. If that is your train of thought, you'd be correct. An electrolyte is a chemical that help conduct electricity within water. 

Your body sends small signals from the brain to every part of your body uses tiny impulses. These impulses are similar to small electrical discharges sent to your heart, nerves, eyes and everywhere else. If you are more technically savvy, it's similar to that of fiber optics. Fiber optics use clear plastic or glass tubes and transmit information (such as from the Internet company to your hooked up modem) through bursts of light. Your brain does the same, only with bits of electricity. 

As is the case with sending out bursts of information electronically, the better the conductors, the better the information signal. Electrolytes within the body improve information conduction by helping signals reach your muscles to improve functionality, help with hydrating the body and even send information to the blood cells and help balance the acidity and blood pressure (Scientific American, 2013). 

Electrical Conductors

During the 1800s, scientists discovered muscular tissue within the human body could conduct electricity. The taboo idea of reanimating a dead human came about during this time because of it (Marry Shelly's "Frankenstein" came about based on this notion). While we know today it takes more than just electricity to bring a person's brain back to life, there's a reason why electrical charges are used to restart the heart (Atlas Obscura, 2016). Muscles and neurons within the body are known as electric tissue. Without the electrical signals running through muscles, the muscles may stiffen and lock up, which is the last thing you want during athletic competition. By bringing back electrolytes into your body, you help restore muscular functionality and help the electrical signals running for peak performance. 

Where Do Electrolytes Originate?

Electrolytes come from several different chemicals and minerals diluted into water. This includes magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, chloride, phosphate and sodium. Your muscles specifically need sodium, calcium and potassium to stretch and contract. If you've ever put yourself on a zero sodium diet (or you know someone who has gone on such a diet), there may be times where you (or they) feel weak and muscles are fatigued even though you haven't used the muscles strenuously. That's because your muscles are missing out on the needed electrolyte of sodium. Additionally, when your body sweats you expel sodium, which leads to a substantial drop in your body's current access to electrolytes (Scientific American, 2013).


How Can You Replenish Your Electrolytes?

Yes, you can reach for your favorite sports drink. During an extremely active workout, there's nothing wrong with drinking some Gatorade. Your body is sweating and you're loosing sodium so to keep your muscles both hydrated and ready for performance, you need to replenish. However, we wouldn't necessarily suggest just sitting at your office desk, drinking a sports drink. Unless your doctor suggests increasing your sodium intake, this is an unnecessary sodium intake.

There are other ways to boost your electrolyte levels. During grade school soccer games, did one of the mothers bring a container of orange slices? That was more than a quick burst of natural energy. And while she may not have known it at the time, fruit is an excellent source of electrolytes. Vegetables are as well, although sitting on the sideline eating broccoli just isn't the same. 

How Do I Know If I'm Low on Electrolytes?

So, you're out, taking part in an athletic activity, but you're not sure if you are running low on electrolytes. How can you tell? The symptoms are pretty straight forward so identifying an imbalance is easy. First, do you feel like your muscles are twitching? Can you feel the muscle (such as your calves) start to twitch? This not only is a sign of an electrolyte shortage but it's often an early warning of potential cramps. And if you've ever had a massive cramp in your legs that feels like a solid brick in your muscle, you know just how painful that feeling is. Once you start feeling that twitch, you need to not only increase your hydration but your electrolytes as well.  

There are plenty of people who don't really like the taste of sports drinks. They find the sodium taste off-putting. We fully endorse drinking just water. As long as you eat a balanced diet throughout the rest of the day you shouldn't have too much of an electrolyte issue. With that said though, if you know you're going to be performing extensively where you can't stop for an extended break, toss a bottle of the sports drink in your bag anyway. Because if your muscles are twitching you're only not far off from other problems. And if you really can't handle the taste, Gatorade and other companies make electrolyte chews and other edibles. 

Beyond the twitching though, other symptoms include feeling weak. If the twitching and weakness in the body go without receiving electrolytes you may actually experience both a heart rhythm disturbance and potentially a seizure. Putting up with the added taste of sodium in your beverage is far better than those two issues (Medicine Net, 2018). 


In Conclusion

Your body needs all sorts of nutrients, chemicals and vitamins to maintain optimal performance. Your muscles are known as electric tissue due to its ability (and reliance) on accepting electrical impulses to perform. Electrolytes help improve the the conduction of neurological information running from your brain to your muscles. As your body begins to suffer from a lack of this conduction, your muscles will not function as quickly. It may also lead to the stiffening of muscles, and potentially twitches, weakness, eventual cramping and other, more substantial problems. So when taking part in a vigorous athletic activity (especially one where you're sweating a great deal), make sure to take control and increase your electrolyte intake