What are electrolytes? What role do electrolytes play in the human body?

So what are electrolytes? We’ve all heard of them before, and we see the word plastered on all kinds of “healthy” beverages, especially the ones aimed at athletes. Especially (cough cough) the red, yellow, and blue drinks.

Electrolytes, simply put, are essential minerals that the body uses to carry out its bodily functions. The jargon-y answer is that electrolytes are compounds that produce positive or negative ions when mixed in water, which is why they’re called “electro”-lytes! Without electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and magnesium, your body would be in big trouble.

So how does your body actually use these electrolytes? The list is long, but to start, electrolytes play a big role in muscles, especially in muscle contraction, which requires calcium, sodium, and potassium. This explains why people, when they don’t replenish fluids, begin feeling those dreaded cramps during exercise.

Electrolytes also play a big role in brain cells (neurons). Specifically, they help neurons communicate with each other. Sodium and potassium work together to create nerve impulses, and magnesium regulates this process by controlling the flow of electrolytes in and out of our brain cells.

Electrolyte imbalances can have all kinds of unwanted effects on the body. This is why keeping the right electrolyte balance is crucial, not just for athletes, but also for people dieting (and wanting to avoid the keto flu, for example), for people who simply aren’t drinking enough water during, or for those with certain medical conditions like Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS, for short). Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include irregular heartbeats, fatigue, muscle spasms, and changes in blood pressure. But there are many more.

Because we’re all different, and engage in different activities throughout the day, electrolyte requirements vary greatly from person to person. One person’s electrolyte requirements might be another person’s minimum intake.

So it’s important to hydrate often, and not just with water. Drinking plain water gets old, and while some bottled waters contain trace minerals, they never have electrolytes in the quantities you need. And they contribute to plastic waste.

Find the right balance of water (and electrolyte) intake by jotting down how much water you drink per day and noting how you feel. Over time, you might pick out some patterns. And if you’re trying to combat day-to-day dehydration, try drinking caffeine-free herbal tea or add some lemon juice to your water to give it flavor.