Updated: Jul 21, 2018
Properly regulated electrolyte balance is essential to maintaining body function in all known higher lifeforms. These physiologically significant charged particles help to regulate and maintain pH balance, muscle and nerve function, and hydration levels.
While many of us recognize the importance of electrolytes when it comes to strenuous activities that make us sweat, they have many other functions in the body that are essential to life. The most common ions of electrolytes in the human body are negatively and/or positively charged versions of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride.
Muscle function depends on the presence of specific electrolytes in muscle tissues. In order for muscles to contract, proper amounts of calcium, sodium, and potassium ions must be present. These charged particles enter and exit your muscle cells through structures called “ion channels” located across the cell muscle membrane. When your body is depleted of these electrolytes painfully severe muscle contractions (aka cramps), along with varying degrees of muscle weakness can occur.
Skeletal muscles that you use to move your body aren’t the only type of muscle you have, however. Cardiac muscle in the heart, and smooth muscle in the intestine also rely on electrolytes to operate effectively. Your heartbeat and your digestive processes aren’t actions you can directly control, but your body uses these charged particles to maintain these functions as well.
The neurons in your body carry signals to and from your brain at high speeds to control your senses, movement, thoughts, etc. These various types of neurons also rely on the presence of electrolytes to operate and move signals throughout the body. Like muscle cells, neuronal action is controlled by the activity of charged particles across its cell membranes.
Electrolytes in your body come from the food and liquids you consume regularly. They are regulated by various hormones, and the kidneys function to remove excess. But problems, sometimes serious, can occur when specific electrolyte types are thrown off balance.
Electrolyte imbalance/disturbances are usually caused by dehydration or overhydration. Dehydration may occur around strenuous exercise, exercise in extreme conditions, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, excessive alcohol consumption and eating disorders/starvation. Sports drinks are effective at replenishing water and electrolytes (usually sodium and potassium salts), as well as offering some carbohydrates. Electrolytes can also be found in various whole fruits and veggies, fruit juices, nuts, seeds and milk.
Overhydration, or hyperhydration, occurs when a person consumes too much water, too quickly and causes a condition called “hyponatremia”. Marathon runners and those overcompensating for heat stress are at risk for hyponatremia. Although it is rare, over-hydrating can be as dangerous as becoming dehydrated. These conditions can lead to serious acute health problems that may result in death. Your body’s internal mechanisms for regulating electrolyte levels always seek balance.
Remember to always consume appropriate amounts of water and food before exercise/activity. If you begin to exercise while already dehydrated you will find it difficult to hydrate to proper levels while on the move. Urine color is a great way to indicate your current hydration level. Dark-colored urine indicates you need to consume more water. Be aware, though, that various types of nutritional supplements and foods can affect the color as well.
Cheers to staying hydrated this summer, y’all!