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Understanding Electrolytes

There is a fancy water-dispensing machine in the gym at one of the companies where I teach group classes. Gym-goers have the option of infusing their H2O with flavors or other additives. The question most often presented to me about the options is, “Should I add electrolytes?”

Alameda Post - a shaker of salt, one of the sources of electrolytes

What are electrolytes? Merriam-Webster’s medical definition is:

1. a nonmetallic electric conductor in which current is carried by the movement of ions



2. a: a substance (as an acid, base, or salt) that when dissolved in a suitable solvent (as water) or when fused becomes an ionic conductor

b: any of the ions (as of sodium, potassium, calcium, or bicarbonate) that in a biological fluid regulate or affect most  metabolic processes (as the flow of nutrients into and waste products out of cells)—used especially in biology and biochemistry.

The National Cancer Institute’s definition is somewhat simpler: “A substance that breaks up into ions (particles with electrical charges) when it is dissolved in water or body fluids. Some examples of ions are sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, and phosphate. These ions help move nutrients into cells, help move waste out of cells, and help nerves, muscles, the heart, and the brain work the way they should.”

The National Library of Medicine publication Electrolytes states that these essential substances “… can be imbalanced, leading to high or low levels. High or low levels of electrolytes disrupt normal bodily functions and can lead to life-threatening  complications.” Electrolytes are essential to your body’s function. They help regulate hydration and pH levels. Proper hydration is key to organ function and regulating your body temperature, plus so much more.

Alameda Post - a water bottle next to a basketball

My article, Water is Life, is a short read as to why drinking water is essential. Like hydration, maintaining pH levels is essential for many of the processes of the body, such as the delivery of oxygen to your tissues. Electrolytes also impact your brain, nervous system, and muscle function. Significant electrolytes in your body include sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonates. Your body can only naturally produce bicarbonates, so the others must be consumed.

Here are some foods that are high in electrolytes. Common sources of sodium in the diet are salt, pickled foods, and soups. People often opt for a banana as a natural source of potassium, but options that are lower in sugar are sweet potato and avocado. Dairy and dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, are readily available sources of calcium. Magnesium is plentiful in seeds such as pumpkin or chia, almonds, brown rice, and legumes. Consume lettuce and olives for chloride.

Alameda Post - a bowl of bananas and avocados

Typically, people will get the electrolytes their bodies need from a healthy and balanced diet, which includes not undereating. As always, if your body is not functioning well, consult with your physician. A blood test can determine if you have an electrolyte imbalance.

If not diagnosed with an imbalance, do you need extra electrolytes? Possibly. If you have been working out intensely for 60 minutes or more, you may need more than water as you’ve lost electrolytes through sweating. Most people’s workouts do not exceed an hour and are not intense the whole way through. So, water generally is your best option to rehydrate.

If you have been in extreme heat or at high altitudes and sweating a lot, a drink with electrolytes may help to rehydrate you quickly. In those situations, opt for non-carbonated and non-caffeinated drinks. This is also true if you’ve experienced tummy troubles, especially with vomiting or diarrhea.

So, when I fill my water bottle from the fancy machine, I occasionally press the button for lemon, cucumber, or raspberry flavor, but never for other options such as caffeine or electrolytes.

Contributing writer Denise Lum is a Health and Fitness Coach raising her family in Alameda. Contact her via [email protected] or FitnessByDsign.com. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Denise-Lum.

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