Medically Reviewed by Dr. Bryan Seigel D.C., P.L.C.
We talk a lot about electrolytes around here, and today is no exception. You might already know that, as the name implies, electrolytes are necessary for electrical signal regulation in your body, like nerve communication or muscle movement. You might also already know some of the side effects of not getting enough electrolytes each day, like muscle cramps and wicked headaches. There’s lots more to dive into and you’re about to learn what the 6 electrolyte minerals are and why are electrolytes important.
What are electrolytes?
The electrolyte minerals are the smallest signaling molecules in the body. They travel through channels in cell membranes to trigger processes that are necessary for us to stay alive. Using these channels, electrolytes shuttle nutrients into cells, and carry wastes out of them. Electrolyte minerals travel through the space between nerve cells and muscle cells to trigger contraction or relaxation, and maintain fluid balance inside and outside of the cell.
Electrolyte levels are kept in balance by a complex hormone cascade, and this is largely regulated in the kidneys and adrenal glands. These same hormones are also responsible for the signal of being thirsty. If you feel thirsty, you’re also probably low in electrolytes! While the body must keep electrolytes in a very narrow range for you to feel your best, it can only work with what it’s got, and lots of normal daily activities use up these essential minerals. Sitting at a desk requires electrolytes to breathe, pump the heart, and tap keys on a keyboard. Getting a good workout in uses even more electrolytes since not only are the muscles and nerves cycling through them but they’re lost in sweat, too. This is why it’s so important to replenish your electrolytes every day.
Why are electrolytes important?
Cancer and heart disease are some of the scariest and most life-altering diseases in the world and present a clear threat to good health. Electrolyte imbalances don’t start off as dramatically as these diseases, and it can be easy to write off a day where you just don’t feel your best. It’s rare for someone to go to the doctor for low electrolytes, and is only seen as a medical condition when someone has a health crisis in certain extreme conditions.
Instead, electrolyte imbalances tend to make you feel not like yourself, like you don’t want to get up and walk, and like your head is filled with rocks. Cramps are common when electrolytes are low, as are headaches, and a general feeling of malaise and lethargy. So you see, low electrolytes might not lead to a hospital trip, but they can dramatically decrease your quality of life.
Electrolyte minerals are important in maintaining hydration, too. When there aren’t enough electrolytes circulating, water gets pulled from the bloodstream to maintain solute balance. Less water in the blood means less water reaching cells, and nutrients and wastes can’t be transported effectively. When you lose electrolytes, you also lose water, and this is why drinking plain water just isn’t good enough.
There are 6 electrolyte minerals
This is the most abundant positively charged ion in the body, and it’s needed in larger amounts than the other minerals because it’s used so heavily. Sodium is needed for nerve conduction and muscle contraction, including maintaining heart rhythm. It helps to regulate body temperature and level of thirst, as well as energy production in the form of ATP in cells.
It’s true that calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, but that’s not all! Calcium is necessary for metabolic function, blood clotting, heart rhythm regulation, and as a cofactor for many enzymes. While the majority of the calcium circulating in the blood and other fluids is electrically charged, the calcium that makes up bones and teeth is not.
This ion is found in greater concentrations inside of cells, as opposed to extracellular fluid like blood. It functions opposite of sodium in many ways and is paired to it in the Sodium-Potassium Pump in cell membranes, which drives many cellular functions.
This mineral is often bound to sodium in the form of table salt. Since sodium is the most abundant positively charged ion in the body, it makes sense that chloride is the most abundant negative one. Chloride supports good digestion, body-wide fluid pH balance, and optimal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
This electrolyte mineral seems to be the most forgettable, and yet it’s just as essential as the rest. It pairs with calcium to build bones and teeth, and is essential in cellular energy production. Phosphate is often bound to oxygen; when it isn’t bound it’s just phosphorus. Phosphate is an integral part of cell membranes and our DNA.
While magnesium is needed for the same reasons as the other electrolytes, such as nerve firing and muscle function, it’s also used by over 300 enzyme reactions! It’s necessary for strong bone formation and healthy sleep cycles. Muscle fibers need magnesium to slide together when they contract and relax. Being under stress depletes this mineral so if you’re having a rough week you may need extra.
How to get enough electrolytes
Processed foods have virtually no usable electrolyte minerals in them, so this is another reason it’s smart to avoid processed foods. In addition, many frozen foods and restaurant meals are high in sodium, even if they don’t taste salty, which can throw off your electrolyte balance. Alcohol can also deplete electrolytes, so indulge infrequently.
Choose fresh foods as often as possible, like green leafy vegetables and low-sugar fruits. Fresh whole foods aren’t enough though, since many foods, even organic options, are grown in mineral-depleted soil. It’s virtually impossible to get enough electrolytes from food alone in the modern world even though fresh foods are the most nutrient-dense.
Your best bet is to supplement with a well-formulated electrolyte drink. When choosing an electrolyte mix, look for one that includes all 6 electrolyte minerals. Ideally, choose a mix that has a supportive blend of vitamins and minerals as well, while avoiding artificial colors, sweeteners, and additives. Some people tolerate more carbohydrates than others, but the best electrolyte mixes will use a natural, non-sugar sweetener and natural flavors so drinking your electrolytes is also a delicious treat.
Do you remember why are electrolytes important? It’s because every cell in your body uses them! From simple tasks like typing at a keyboard to complex movements like burpees, and every vital process in between, electrolyte minerals provide the charge for daily living. We get signs when our electrolytes are low, like headaches and a lack of energy, but this is easy enough to fix! Focus on whole foods, especially fresh vegetables, and drink at least one electrolyte drink every day to feel your best.
Shrimanker I, Bhattarai S. Electrolytes. 2020 Sep 12. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 31082167. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31082167/)