A host of sports drinks and rehydration products are marketed as a rich source of electrolytes, to the point where these products have become subject to parody (see the movie ‘Idiocracy’, for example). So it makes sense to wonder if electrolytes live up to the hype and why exactly, we need them.
What is an Electrolyte?
As you may remember from school biology classes, electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that are essential for human health. Some of the most common ones include:
Why Do We Need Them?
Electrolytes are needed for proper muscle function and nerve signalling, and to control what goes in and comes out of our cells, including water. Without the right balance of electrolytes, cells begin to lose water and let in toxins. They also help keep a healthy blood pH and normal healthy bone function and other essential physiological processes.
Maintaining Electrolyte Balance
Electrolytes are lost when we sweat and when we go to the bathroom, although our kidneys are usually pretty good at conserving them as needed. In order to maintain levels of electrolytes in our blood and tissues, we have to drink fluids that contain these minerals or get them from our food.
Water itself does not contain electrolytes and drinking too much water without enough electrolytes can cause an imbalance. In fact, by ensuring a good intake of electrolytes, it is possible to keep hydrated more efficiently with less water, which could give athletes a competitive edge, save time in emergency situations, and help to conserve water.
To stay properly hydrated, we usually just need to drink plenty of water and eat fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy whole grains, nuts, seeds, pulses and legumes, all of which contain a variety of essential minerals, including electrolytes.
However, when hot weather, intense exercise or anything else causes us to lose a lot of fluids, a ready-made electrolyte product can be useful. Try mixing up this delicious PGX Coconut Blast SatisFast shake to have on hand.
Not Just for Athletes
Electrolyte drinks, powders and other products are not just designed for professional athletes, but for everyday gym-goers and people who live in a hot climate. In fact, electrolyte products are often used by firefighters tackling wildfires, as well as by anyone engaged in strenuous work, especially in the intense heat.
Staying properly hydrated and keeping our electrolyte levels balanced supports good health, but watch out for ready-made drinks that contain large amounts of sugar, as well as artificial sweeteners, flavourings, colours and preservatives. Instead, choose natural products such as coconut water to replace lost minerals as part of an overall balanced diet.
Anyone taking medications that affect levels of potassium, calcium or other electrolytes, or who has high blood pressure should check with their health care practitioner prior to using products containing electrolytes.
Cuddy, J.S., Ham, J.A., Harger, S.G., et al., (2008). Effects of an Electrolyte Additive on Hydration and Drinking Behavior During Wildfire Suppression. WEM, 19:172-180.