What is the role of electrolytes within our body?
You have probably heard of electrolytes before. They’re often found in sports drinks, or in recovery sachets to be added to water if you’ve been unwell, but do you know what they actually are and how they work?
An electrolyte is a mineral that carries an electrical charge when it is dissolved in water. They spark cell function and are essential for many bodily processes – from the regulation of muscles and nerve function to keeping the body hydrated, balancing blood pressure and acidity levels, and helping damaged tissues to rebuild and repair.
What are the different electrolytes within the human body?
We naturally have electrolytes within our body but it’s important to ensure we have enough of them and not to let them become unbalanced. The main electrolytes that can be found in human bodies include:
Electrolytes move through our bodies via transportation through the fluid in and around our cells, and all of these electrolytes are needed to function properly. A muscle, for example, relies upon calcium, sodium and potassium in order to contract. If it doesn’t get enough of these it can lead to feelings of weakness or, conversely, may contract or spasm involuntarily.
The role of electrolytes
Electrolytes keep your heart beating by electrically stimulating muscle contractions and are essential for balancing fluids within the body. They have other important functions in addition to that. Studies have shown that electrolytes help to build new tissue and can support blood clotting. They also maintain the pH level of your blood and regulate the fluid level in your blood plasma.1
What happens when electrolytes are imbalanced?
If the range of electrolytes in your body is either too high or too low, this can result in an electrolyte imbalance. There are a few different things that can cause this to happen. Dehydration is one of the most common and can result any time there is a rapid loss of bodily fluids via an illness, excessive sweating or burns. Studies have shown that certain conditions, such as kidney disease or Addison’s disease, as well as those with type 1 diabetes, may also be at risk of electrolyte imbalances.2
When you are experiencing an imbalance, you may notice that your muscles feel weak or suffer from cramps, spams or twitching. You may feel thirsty or have a headache, feel tired or lacking in energy or even might feel confused or disoriented.
How many electrolytes do you need and where can you find them?
Several factors will influence the levels of electrolytes your body needs, including your age, activity level, water consumption and climate. Those living in warm environments or taking part in regular exercise, will need more than someone in a cold climate with a sedentary lifestyle, as electrolytes leave the body through sweat, evaporation and excretion.
Electrolytes can be found in a well-balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of electrolytes, with some stand outs being bananas, which contain high levels of potassium, and almonds which contain high levels of magnesium.
Many people will get the electrolytes they need though their daily diet, but you can also supplement your electrolyte intake if you are at risk of an imbalance after an illness, following exercise or if visiting a hot country and sweating more, for example. You should remember though, that you can have too high, as well as too low, levels of electrolytes and your body is usually pretty good at regulating these levels itself. If you are in any doubt, it’s always best to consult your doctor.