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Electrolytes 101 | Learn How Electrolytes Work

Though many people don’t think about them, electrolytes play a vital role in the body. They are involved in many processes, including the regulation of nerve impulses, muscle contractions, controlling pH levels, and much more.


Without an adequate supply of electrolytes, disturbances occur, often resulting in health issues and – if the disbalance is too large – even death.


Let’s take an in-depth look at electrolytes, what they are, and what purposes they serve. 


What Are Electrolytes?


Electrolytes are tiny particles that carry a positive or negative electric charge. In human health and nutrition, electrolytes are minerals found in bodily fluids, including sweat and blood.


Once ingested, minerals dissolve in fluids and form ions with a positive or negative charge. These then play a role in various processes where the body needs electric impulses. Common examples include heartbeat, nerve signals, muscle contractions, and more.


The human body is home to a range of electrolytes:


  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphate
  • Chloride
  • Bicarbonate


How Does Your Body Use Electrolytes?


One of the most notable uses of electrolytes has to do with nervous system function. As mentioned above, positive and negative ions play a vital role in nerve signaling. Most notably, adequate electrolyte levels allow for the brain and body to communicate effectively.


A similar function has to do with muscle contractions. Calcium is a vital electrolyte that plays a role in muscle contraction. Once the brain sends signals to a particular muscle group, calcium allows muscle fibers to slide over each other, shorten the muscle and produce the contraction. 


For instance, if you take your right hand to the side and flex your biceps, you can thank calcium for making that possible.


Besides that, electrolytes play an important role in hydration status. Your body needs adequate fluid levels inside your cells and outside. Sodium is the electrolyte that allows for that balance to occur thanks to a process called osmosis. 


Electrolytes And Athletic Performance


Besides the many electrolyte functions in the body, we also need adequate levels to optimize our athletic performance. For one, electrolyte deficiencies weaken the connection between our brain and muscles, resulting in less forceful contractions and muscle weakness.


Electrolyte deficiencies also hinder nerve signaling inside the brain, leading to confusion, brain fog, and an inability to focus. This lowers motivation to work hard and often prevents athletes from having effective training sessions.


Besides that, electrolyte disbalances can lead to headaches and general fatigue, both of which impact athletic performance.


The bottom line is, electrolytes play a vital role in athletic performance.


Adverse Effects of Low Electrolyte Levels


The bad news is, low electrolyte levels can be harmful to our health. The good news is, your body will tell you if it lacks these nutrients. The most common symptoms related to low electrolytes are:


  • General confusion
  • Numbness
  • A quick or irregular heartbeat
  • Convulsions
  • General fatigue
  • Inability to focus


Potential Dangers of Elevated Electrolyte Concentrations


Just as low electrolyte levels can be harmful to our health, elevated concentrations can also be bad. For instance, too much sodium can lead to fluid retention and high blood pressure. Both of these are not good for our health.


Like low electrolyte concentrations, elevations can also lead to a fast or irregular heartbeat, headaches, and general fatigue. They can also lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, convulsions, seizures, muscle cramps, and more.


If you suspect imbalances in electrolyte levels, consult a medical professional and explain your symptoms to them.