We’ve all heard the term “electrolytes” – they’ve become a selling point of energy and sports drinks, and have even been elevated to somewhat of a meme status. They’ve also made an appearance in the movie Idiocracy as an ingredient in Brawndo (a drink brand which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Gatorade). Most of us vaguely know of electrolytes, but couldn’t say much more than “they help us recover after a workout”. So let’s talk a little bit about what they really do for us.
It’s what our body craves
The human body is roughly 60% water, and different cell types contain different amounts of water. Our skin cells are 64% water, our muscles are 79% water, and even our bones are 31% water. Regulating the amount of water in our cells is important because if they take on too much water and they’d explode (cytolysis), and if they have too little water they’d shrivel up (plasmolysis). This is where electrolytes come in.
Electrolytes are minerals which can dissolve in the body to produce positive and negative ions. These ions are what regulate the intake and outflow of water for each cell so that the perfect amount of water is always present. However, when we exercise we sweat and lose water, and with this water we lose some of our ions. In fact, do you know what makes sweat salty? Sodium, Chloride, and Potassium which are secreted with the sweat – these are three different salts (a compound made up of positive and negative ions) which are also electrolytes!
When we sweat, these electrolytes leave our body and our cells lose some of their ability to regulate the water content in our cells. This is why it is important before and after a heavy workout to ensure you drink plenty of water. If you sweat a lot, adding in a little bit of electrolytes (sugar free sports drink) won’t hurt either.
However, it’s important to note that most Americans get enough electrolytes in their diet anyways, and many of us don’t workout or sweat so much that we’ll be in any danger of throwing off our electrolyte balance. An electrolyte supplement is not really necessary unless you’re an elite athlete or marathon runner. Sports drinks that contain sugar are not helpful either, one sugary sports drink will most likely deliver back all the calories that were just burned during the workout!
What else do they do?
In addition to regulating water content in our cells, electrolytes also help our nerves to fire. Because electrolytes are charged ions, they can conduct electrical impulses along cell membranes in neurons and muscles.
When should I take them?
As noted before, it’s probably not necessary to take an electrolyte supplement. But, if you decide you want to then drink them 15 minutes before, during, or after your workout. It will take some time for your body to digest them so the exact timing is not of extreme importance.
Dosage is not straight forward because there are many different types of electrolytes. The table below outlines optimal daily requirements for electrolytes for someone who is 150lbs, as well as the amount of each electrolyte required daily per pound of body weight.
- Sodium: 500mg (3.3mg/lb)
- Potassium: 2000mg (13.3mg/lb)
- Chloride: 750mg (5mg/lb)
- Calcium: 1200mg (8mg/lb)
- Magnesium: 420mg (2.8mg/lb)
- Phosphorous: 700mg (4.7mg/lb)
Because electrolytes perform a wide range of functions in many different tissue types, side effects can be wide ranging depending on whether there is too much or too little of any one electrolyte in your body. If you’ve recently added an electrolyte supplement to your diet (not the occasional sports drink but an actual supplement), then take note if you experience any of the following symptoms and contact a doctor:
- irregular heartbeat
- fast heart rate
- convulsions or seizures
- diarrhea or constipation
- abdominal cramping
- muscle weakness
- muscle cramping
- numbness and tingling
Is it safe?
Typically, yes! Most people will naturally ingest a reasonable amount of electrolytes each day, so the risk of overdosing or sweating them all out during a workout is low. Stick to the optimal daily requirements listed above and monitor yourself if you take a supplement and anything feels irregular.