The term electrolytes can be a bit ambiguous. We’re told we need them and certain products can supply them. But what are electrolytes really? What do they do and why do we need them?
What Are Electrolytes
When certain salts are dissolved in fluid, they break down into ions that make up those salts. In water, for example, table salt, NaCl, dissolves into the component ions, sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-). The same principle applies to all electrolytes; they are salts that break down into electrically-conductive solutions.
What Electrolytes Do
Electrolytes are important. Many bodily functions are dependent on electrolytes including:
- Muscle fluid balance (intra and extracellular)
- Nerve impulses
- Muscle function
- pH levels
- Immune function
- DNA synthesis
- Tissue growth/repair
- Metabolic activity
These are just some of the keys functions. There are even more when you look at each electrolyte and their primary functions.
There are several electrolytes that are used by within the body. There are seven however, that are necessary for vital bodily functions.
- Sodium: Controls total amount of fluid in body; makes up half of electrical pump (with potassium); used to maintain blood volume; control muscle and nerve function; found outside of cells
- Chloride: The major negatively charged ion; used for fluid balance and pressure in tissues; used to maintain pH levels
- Potassium: Other half of the electrical pump (with sodium); found inside cells; key for heartbeat regulation and muscle function
- Magnesium: Probably the most important electrolyte as it used in so many (300+) biochemical processes. Important for DNA and RNA synthesis, nerve and muscle function
- Calcium: As you may know, necessary for teeth and bones; essential for nerve impulses, blood clotting, and muscle function; most abundant mineral in the body
- Phosphate: Second most abundant mineral in the body; used for energy production; important for repair and growth of tissue
- Bicarbonate: Important for pH balance; released by kidneys to lower acidity caused by metabolic activity or lactic acid buildup
Now that you know what they are and how important, the next question is: How do I get them? Simple, food. All of the seven vital electrolytes can be ingested in adequate amounts through a balanced diet. With a decent amount of: salt, meat, milk, vegetables, and some fruits, you can get all of the electrolytes your body needs. During exercise you will lose electrolytes. For the most part, it isn’t a big deal as long as you stay hydrated and keep eating things to replenish them. In fact, research shows that during exercise of 30 minutes or less there is no benefit to hydrating. There is a myth that on the ketogenic diet you need to supplement electrolytes. Not so. In the beginning, fat-adaptation stages you will lose a lot of fluid and with that fluid electrolytes. This is what causes the “keto flu.” With proper hydration and adding a bit more salt to your diet you will be fine. In the long term, proper hydration and eating well will take care of it.