More than sports drinks: what are electrolytes and why do we need them?

When you think of electrolytes, your first thought might be of sports drinks. Gatorade ads promise to fuel your body with electrolytes, especially after a long workout. So, what is it that electrolytes do for your body? Why do we need them?

Well, for starters, electrolytes are minerals. They are in the fluids in your body, such as your blood, and carry an electric charge (1). The electrolytes in your body help regulate many important body functions, such as the amount of water in your system and how your muscles move. When you’re working out and start to break a sweat, you’ll lose some electrolytes. Part of the reason you might feel dehydrated after a long workout is the loss of electrolytes. The mineral helps hydrate your body, so they are essential to your body (2).

There are multiple types of electrolytes, but to name a few, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are all electrolytes (3). When you sweat, sodium is the most noticeable electrolyte you’re losing, since sweat is salty. Potassium is also lost when you sweat. Have you ever felt unwell after a hard workout in the heat, like after playing in a baseball game in late July? You probably had lost some potassium, too. After losing electrolytes, you might feel dehydrated, have a headache, feel nauseous, or have cramping. Cramping is the easiest way to recognize you’re low in electrolytes (4), so if you start to feel a pain in your side, you’ll want to replenish your electrolytes fast.

A clinical study published in 2020 (5) looked to discover what happens to your body when certain electrolytes are out of balance. The study outlined the symptoms that might be felt when each electrolyte is out of balance, which is helpful to familiarize yourself with so you know how to replenish yourself. If you feel nauseous or have a headache, you might be lacking sodium. If you have cramping or muscle weakness, you might need more potassium. If your body needs more chloride, you might even find yourself vomiting.

So, how do you replenish the electrolytes in your system? Are sports drinks, like Powerade and Gatorade, the only way? Well, it’s a good idea to have one if you are doing an intense workout, especially if it’s in the heat. According to dietician Kate Patton, sports drinks should be saved for occasions like this (6). If you’re doing a casual workout, like a walk on an indoor track, you only need water afterwards. When you do choose to have a sports drink, try to stick to low or no calorie options.

Sports drinks aren’t the only way to get electrolytes in your body. Plenty of foods also have electrolytes in them, which is how we all get most of our electrolytes in our systems. You may get your sodium from sauces, soup, pickles, or any salty snack. Calcium may be consumed in your yogurt at lunch, or with the milk you put in your bowl of cereal. As many know, potassium can be replenished in your system by eating a banana, or even a potato with the skin on.

Electrolytes are crucial to your body’s functions. In most cases, you likely have enough in your system simply because of the food in your diet. However, you should make sure you properly replenish your system after an intense workout, especially one in the heat.

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