Electrolytes 101

Almost anyone you mention the word ‘electrolyte’ to immediately conjure up associations with athletic endurance, performance and rehydration. Whilst this is by no means incorrect to have such associations, they are commonly understood in the context of hydration only, despite serving countless other roles in the body!

Therefore, for the purpose of this article, we will be exploring what electrolytes are, what function they perform and what are the best sources! Pro tip-the answer is likely not in your favourite sports drink!

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are in their most basal form, salts. When dissolved in water, most salts will strip out their conductive ions, leaving a conductive brine-like solution. This solution, laden with the conductive ions from the salts is now an electrically-conductive liquid and this is precisely the definition of an electrolyte; any such conductive fluid.

So why is the conductivity of brine important for your Saturday game of League?

Well, in Layman’s terms it is because almost every movement, transport of fluid, contraction of a muscle or nerve cell, or even neurological connection is driven by electrical impulses. These electrical impulses travel along conductive super highways in your body, therefore obviously requiring a conductive pathway to travel efficiently and facilitate muscle contractions, nerve impulses and firing of neurons to allow neurological activity.

So to function any where optimally, you require the right balance of electrolytes present to aid in facilitation of these electrical impulses and by the same token, to perform at a decent athletic capacity, there is a greater demand placed on these electrolytic salts, as there are simply more contractions occurring in a given unit of time. Throw in to the mix that sweating depletes electrolytes and over consumption of water can dilute their balance, and it becomes obvious why maintaining adequate quantities of electrolytes is important for the Saturday game.

So what are the electrolytes?

Well, there are 7 major electrolytes:

Sodium (Na+)

Chloride (Cl-)

Potassium (K+)

Magnesium (Mg++)

Calcium (Ca++)

Phosphate (HPO4–)

Bicarbonate (HCO3-)

What Do they Do?

In a nutshell, apart from facilitating electrical activity within the body, electrolytes aid in maintaining the fluid balance between intracellular (inside the cells) and extracellular sites. This fluid balance will dictate total water volume in the body, blood pressure via blood viscosity, nerve function, hydration, muscle contractile force and pH levels.

Now this is electrolytic function in a nutshell, however, each of the 7 have special functions assigned to them. Sodium for example, dictates total water volume, which is the governing factor in total blood volume, muscle and nerve function. Sodium is also one half of the salts required to facilitate the electrical pump that keeps the fluid balance between intra/extracellular water content regulated (Potassium being the other big player).

Chloride works closely with Sodium to maintain intra-compartmental pressures of various fluid throughout the body.

Calcium and Potassium also work closely with Sodium to facilitate contractions of muscle tissue, and Magnesium is involved in over 300 metabolic functions within the body. Without any or all of them, you can expect weakness, general fatigue, cramping, changes in blood pressure and a host of potentially more severe health risks, particularly in the case of Sodium imbalances. So what does all of this mean for the everyday trainee, and what is the take home message to be had here?

The Bigger Picture:

So now we have looked at what the 7 major electrolytes are, what functions they play within the body and briefly what each specific electrolytes’ fuctions are, we can tie it all back to how they clearly are essential for function.

You can not maintain good health, let alone high threshold athletic output, without them. It really is that simple.

However, instead of loading up on each one individually, the importance lies in the balance. Because all 7 are dependent on each other to facilitate optimal blood pressure, total body water volume, muscle and nerve contractile activity and the fluid balance of the intra vs extracellular. Without adequate Sodium you will throw out your total water volume, thus affecting blood pressure, thus affecting cardiac output, nerve impulses, hydration, neuron activity and contractile force of muscle tissue. The same is true for Calcium, Potassium or any of the other 7. All of them are required for optimal function.

This goes back to the original Pro-tip that your favourite sports drink is likely not the best means of supplying your electrolytic demands. Most sports drinks contain just one or two of the better known electrolytes. A low dose of Sodium, perhaps some Potassium if they are a higher end rehydration blend. Clearly, seeing how co-dependent these salts all are, it becomes obvious why these one or two electrolytes in your service station sports drink just doesn’t fit the bill.

So the take home message is that the key to optimal performance, hydration and health is in the  balance of the electrolytes consumed and the best way to get a balanced intake is through consuming a variety of healthy, nutritious foods like coconuts (particularly the water which is an electrolytic gold mine), bananas, kiwi fruits, shellfish, and green leafy vegetables. These foods will supply a huge array of vitamins and minerals with all the necessary co-factors, phytonutrients and enzymes to absorb them, as well as a balanced variety of the 7 electrolytes.

So, as always, it all comes back to consuming a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables (with the odd sports supplements thrown in) is always the best approach to achieving optimal health, and the same is true for achieving your electrolytic balance! So try throwing is some of these hydrating foods before your next session (particularly coconut water and bananas) and see if you don’t notice the difference your new diet reaps in your training!