While many people have heard about the idea of electrolytes and that they are important, not everyone is as clear about just what exactly they are and when they need to be replaced. Understanding the principles of electrolyte replacement is especially important for athletes.
Electrolytes are nutrients that help maintain the proper balance of water in the body and help the muscles contract due to their positive and negative electrical charges. They also influence brain function. The main electrolytes are sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium and chloride.
Risks of Low Electrolyte Levels
When electrolyte levels become low, such as when someone sweats a lot due to high heat or activity levels or loses a lot of liquid through diarrhea or vomiting, they can become dehydrated and even die. This is why electrolyte replacement beverages are typically used for compression garments instead of plain water. Plain water doesn’t replace the lost electrolytes, and adding electrolytes makes it easier for the body to absorb the needed fluid. Other potential consequences of electrolyte levels that are decreased include muscle soreness, weakness, confusion, swelling and even irregular heartbeat, seizures or a coma..
Who Needs Electrolyte Replacement
People who are exercising at a very high intensity or in high heat or humidity and those who are exercising for more than an hour may need to eat or drink something for electrolyte replacement. The same is true of people who are having problems with diarrhea or vomiting. A person can estimate how much liquid needs to be replaced by weighing themselves before and after exercising to see how much was lost through sweat. It’s also easy to estimate whether or not a person is dehydrated by the color of their urine — the darker the urine, the more dehydrated a person is.
Types of Electrolyte Replacement
People who’ve been exercising a long time often need more calories as well as more electrolytes. In this case, it’s possible to eat salty foods along with drinking water to replace some of the necessary electrolytes. Sodium is one of the main electrolytes lost through sweat. Those who want to replace electrolytes with sports drinks can choose from a number of different types of beverages, including those made with artificial sweeteners to provide few or no calories and those that provide more calories through the addition of some type of sweetener. Another consideration is whether the beverage is a HYPOTONIC fluid, which means it contains a lower concentration of sugar and salt than the body and is more quickly absorbed, hypertonic, which means it has greater concentrations of these nutrients to give the body more of a carbohydrate boost, or isotonic, which means it has about the same concentration of these nutrients as the body. Most sports drinks are isotonic, but hypotonic fluids are particularly beneficial for those that want more electrolytes without consuming a lot of calories.