Electrolytes, minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water, have a big job to fulfill in the body.
They play a pivotal role in controlling your fluid balance, regulating your blood pressure, helping your muscles contract (including your heart), and maintaining the correct pH level of your blood.
You’ve probably seen a plethora of electrolyte waters on the shelves at supermarkets. These are waters that have been enhanced with electrolytes.
Little do most people know, tap water has electrolytes as well. Unless it’s labeled “distilled,” bottled water provides at least some electrolytes.
It goes without saying: proper hydration is vital for overall health. But do we really need to spend money on sports drinks and electrolyte-spiked waters? Or will plain old H2O do the trick?
To answer that question, it depends on the circumstances. Here’s how to tell if your body needs a hydration boost.
Common electrolytes include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium -- minerals your body needs to function optimally. Electrolytes are needed to create the electrical impulses that regulate nerve and muscle function. When we have too few electrolytes, those signals aren't sent properly and the body can't run as smoothly as it should, resulting in cramping, dizziness, and headaches, among other symptoms.
Electrolyte-enhanced water may be beneficial if you’re at risk for loss of these minerals. Those instances include:
Sports drinks like Gatorade and Propel, which contain electrolytes to replenish the minerals you lose during physical activity, are recommended for prolonged exercise of more than an hour. Electrolyte-enhanced waters may especially benefit athletes who want to maintain strength, speed, and focus during long training sessions.
Sweat contains electrolytes, including a significant amount of sodium, as well as small amounts of potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Although the amount of mineral loss varies from person to person, we can lose a substantial amount of sodium and electrolytes through sweat. If you tend to sweat a lot during exercise or other physical activity like yard work, you need additional fluids to replace the water and nutrients lost through sweat.
Vomiting and diarrhea, as a result of illness, can lead to dehydration. Since our bodily fluids contain minerals, losing a lot of fluids at once causes electrolyte levels to drop. In the short term, vomiting and diarrhea are usually not serious. However, severe or persistent symptoms can quickly lead to dehydration if fluids and electrolytes are not replaced. Oral rehydration solutions contain water, carbs, and electrolytes in specific measurements that are easy to digest. Look for a drink without a high amount of sugar, like Pedialyte.
Remember that electrolyte beverages may be insufficient for treating severe dehydration. If diarrhea lasts more than 24 hours or if you’re unable to keep fluids down, seek medical advice from your doctor.
Prolonged exposure to heat puts you at risk for heatstroke. Not getting enough sodium through fluid replacement also can lead to complications like heat cramps, dizziness, and decreased performance. To reduce your risk and keep your body cool in hot environments (outdoors in the sun or in a ‘hot yoga’ class), coconut water and sports drinks may be your best bet.
Ever heard of the keto flu? Embarking on a ketogenic diet may result in water loss from the body, as well as decreased levels of sodium, potassium, and magnesium, leading to headaches, muscle cramps, fatigue, and other flu-like miseries.
If you’re starting out on a keto diet, adding electrolytes through diet or supplementation is an effective way to replenish lost nutrients:
If you’re struggling to get these nutrients in your diet, electrolyte supplements containing sodium, potassium, and magnesium are available.
Remember that there are many variables -- like size, gender, activity level, how much you sweat, and any medications you're taking -- that can affect the amount of electrolytes you actually need. A good rule is to make sure you feel hydrated before you start exercising, and drink water during your workout if you feel thirsty. If you feel fine, don’t overdo it. Your body will tell you what it needs and, in most cases, what it needs to feel replenished is plain old water.
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