As the name suggests electrolytes are substances within the body that carry a positive or negative electrical charge. Electrolytes are essential for life and basic function, such as maintaining electrical neutrality in cells, playing key roles in nerves and muscle function and maintain the balance between fluids inside and outside your cells. Sodium, potassium and chloride are the significant electrolytes; however magnesium, calcium, phosphate and bicarbonates also play a key role in the electrolyte balance [1-3]. These minerals come from our fluids and food and when dissolved in water become electrolytes meaning they can conduct an electric current in water.
If these electrolytes fall outside their normal ranges this can cause an imbalance leading to high or low levels. This is often seen in sport where people are exercising for an extended duration, are heavy sweaters, exercising in hot climates or a combination of all. Electrolytes are often spoken about in the context of hydration levels whereby they can influence the amount of fluid in our body and how our body can function during exercise. Ensuring these boxes are ticked can play a key role in exercise performance and our overall health.
As mentioned before there are seven electrolytes that all play various roles within the body. Here is a simple breakdown of what those electrolytes are and the role they play within the body [1-2].
Sodium – Sodium plays a critical role in absorbing nutrients and helping your cells maintain fluid balance. Sodium is also used in the regulation and function of cells. It is the most abundant electrolyte ion found in the human body.
Potassium – Potassium is mainly found within the cells and is used alongside sodium. Potassium is critical for your heart function where too little or too much can cause heart problems.
Chloride – Similar to sodium chloride helps with maintain fluid balance. It is the second most abundant ion and also helps maintain the body’s natural pH balance.
Magnesium – Magnesium is involved in energy production, contraction in muscles and nerve function. You may have heard about magnesium and its relation to muscle cramping. However there is no concrete evidence to support an increase in magnesium in the diet reduces muscle cramping . We do know ensuring adequate hydration levels and consuming electrolytes may reduce muscle cramping for some individuals .
Calcium – Calcium does more than build strong bones, it is also used to control muscle contractions, involved in nerve signals, and managing heart rhythms.
Phosphate – Phosphate is a phosphorous-based molecule the promotes bone formation, and plays an important role in muscle contraction and energy production.
Bicarbonates – Some of the carbon dioxide made from our body goes to the lungs for us to breathe out, there is some however that is recycled into bicarbonate. This Is used to ensure pH levels are normal.
As mentioned previously these electrolytes are found in fluid and food. Ensuring you’re consuming a diet rich in these minerals and having adequate hydration levels will tick those boxes on training or game days.
Reference List: 1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diagnostics/21790-electrolytes 2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541123/ 3. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002350.htm
4. Moretti A. What is the role of magnesium for skeletal muscle cramps? A Cochrane Review summary with commentary. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2021 Mar 1;21(1):1-3. PMID: 33657750; PMCID: PMC8020016.
5. Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention. Sports Health. 2010 Jul;2(4):279-83. doi: 10.1177/1941738109357299. PMID: 23015948; PMCID: PMC3445088.