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What Are Electrolytes and Why Do We Need Them?

BY: Editors | Jun 5, 2015
What Are Electrolytes and Why Do We Need Them?

Scan the neon label of a sports-drink bottle, and you’re likely to see it boasting about its electrolytes. But what are electrolytes, exactly? The short answer: any variety of elements your body needs. For a longer answer, we’ll need to zoom in, all the way to the atomic level.

What Are Electrolytes?

Behind the zippy term lies a list of elements you’ve probably heard of: sodium, chlorine, potassium, calcium, magnesium. All of these are among the most common electrolytes, as well as the least common baby names. 

Put simply, an electrolyte is any ion (that is, an electrically charged atom or molecule) that can allow electrical signals and water to travel through the many permeable cells in your body. Fortunately, our bodies typically maintain their electrolyte balance through normal dietary intake; for instance, plenty of sodium and chlorine ions can be found in ordinary table salt.

Who Needs to Worry About Them?

With each liter of sweat, about 1.5 grams of electrolytes escape through the pores. So if you sweat copiously and drink only water to compensate, you can effectively dilute your internal electrolytes. This can lead to such conditions as hyponatremia, wherein your body has a lower-than-normal concentration of sodium ions, resulting in symptoms that include nausea, confusion, and muscle spasms. Such an affliction is an ever-present risk for marathon runners and other endurance athletes. 

For anyone working out for just an hour a day, however, nutritionists agree that you most likely don’t need to worry about electrolytes. Staying hydrated, eating well, and staring at a photo of a big, shiny trophy is typically enough to give your body the power it needs.

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