What are electrolytes? What do they do?
Electrolytes are essential minerals like sodium, calcium, and potassium. The name “electrolyte” comes from the fact that these molecules conduct electricity when dissolved in water. These chemicals are vital to many of the body’s important functions. Electrolytes are most well-known in association with hydration because they help facilitate maintaining proper water levels in the body. They also regulate muscle contractions and balance your body’s pH levels.
Electrolytes have many functions in the human body:
- Balance hydration within the body
- Regulate nerve and muscle function
- Balance blood acidity
- Balance blood pressure
- Help restore damaged tissues
What happens when electrolytes are low
Your body doesn’t hydrate as well when electrolyte levels are low. Sodium especially helps regulate the water levels in your cells. When your body gets depleted of its salt, such as when you sweat a lot, drinking a lot of pure water can dilute the bloodstream and cause issues like nausea, headaches, muscle cramps, and other issues that will hamper your performance.
More specifically, muscles need calcium, sodium, and potassium to contract properly. An electrolyte imbalance, depending on if it is too high or too low, can cause muscle weakness or excessive contracting (cramps).
How to replace electrolytes
For the most part, electrolytes are replenished normally through a healthy diet. During a high-intensity workout, especially if you’re sweating a lot, you may want to consider consuming a sports drink. Some of these are full of sugar, so you may want to avoid them unless your sweat is forming a salty residue on your clothing. There are lots of good drink alternatives that you can make in order to replenish your electrolyte levels.
In extreme circumstances, a salt pill can be a useful way to quickly increase the body’s salt levels. These are commonly used in long-distance endurance activities for soldiers and athletes, especially during very hot weather.
For most moderate exercise, electrolyte imbalances are not a major concern. These important molecules get replaced naturally through a healthy diet, but for optimal sport performance, athletes need to know their health data related to electrolyte balance.
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