What are Electrolytes?: Understanding Electrolytes and Their Functions

what are electrolytes

Electrolytes are a hot topic in health and wellness discussions, but what exactly are they, and why are they so important? Electrolytes are substances in your body that help to maintain a healthy balance of fluids in your cells. They also aid in muscle function and nerve communication. Understanding what electrolytes are and how they work is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In this blog post, we'll explore what electrolytes are, what they do, why we need them, who needs more and who needs less electrolytes, and what foods contain a lot of electrolytes.

What are Electrolytes? 

Electrolytes are minerals. Specifically, electrolytes is the term used to describe specific essential minerals are particularly important to our overall health. But why exactly are these specific essential minerals so important? Well, think of them as the body's conductors, facilitating the transmission of electrical signals throughout our cells. They are electrically charged minerals that can be found in our blood, urine, and bodily fluids. The most common electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate. 

electrolytes power muscle contractions

Electrolytes are responsible for maintaining proper fluid balance in our cells. They ensure that the right amount of water is present both inside and outside of our cells. This balance is crucial for the normal functioning of our cells, as it allows nutrients to enter the cells while waste products are efficiently removed. Electrolytes also play a crucial role in muscle contractions, central nervous-system function, and maintaining the pH balance of our body.

In addition to their role in fluid balance and cell function, electrolytes also contribute to the overall electrical activity in our bodies. For example, they are essential for proper heart rhythm, as they help regulate the contractions of the heart muscle.

Electrolyte imbalances can have serious consequences for our health. When we lose electrolytes through sweating or other means (urine, vomiting, and diarrhea), it's important to replenish them to maintain proper functioning of our cells and organs. Dehydration, excessive sweating, certain medical conditions, and certain medications can all contribute to electrolyte imbalances.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what electrolytes are, let's delve deeper into what they do and why we need them to keep our bodies functioning optimally.

What do Electrolytes do? 

what do electrolytes do

Electrolytes are not just a fancy term used in sports drinks or fancy water bottles. They play a crucial role in our overall health and well-being. Each electrolyte has its unique specialty functions:

  • Sodium (Na+): Regulates fluid balance, nerve transmission, and muscle contractions.
  • Potassium (K+): Essential for nerve and muscle cell function, including the heart.
  • Calcium (Ca2+): Crucial for muscle function, blood clotting, and bone health.
  • Magnesium (Mg2+): Supports muscle and nerve function, bone health, and energy production.
  • Chloride (Cl-): Helps regulate fluid balance and is essential for digestion.
  • Phosphate (PO4^3-): Involved in energy production and bone health.


First and foremost, electrolytes are responsible for maintaining proper fluid balance in our cells. They ensure that the right amount of water is present both inside and outside of our cells. This balance is essential for the normal functioning of our cells, as it allows nutrients to enter the cells while waste products are efficiently removed. Electrolytes also help regulate the movement of water across cell membranes, preventing cells from either swelling up or shriveling.

Additionally, electrolytes contribute to muscle function. Calcium, potassium, and magnesium, in particular, are involved in muscle contractions. These electrolytes work together to allow our muscles to contract and relax properly, whether it's the beating of our heart or the movement of our limbs during exercise.

Electrolytes are also crucial for nerve transmission. Sodium and potassium ions help generate electrical impulses that allow our nerves to communicate with each other and with our muscles. These electrical signals are responsible for everything from controlling our breathing and heartbeat to allowing us to feel sensations like touch and pain.

Another important function of electrolytes is maintaining the pH balance of our body. They act as buffers, helping to regulate the acidity or alkalinity of our blood and other bodily fluids. This is essential for proper enzyme function, as enzymes are highly sensitive to changes in pH.

Who Needs More Electrolytes? 

athletes need electrolytes

For some individuals, maintaining a proper balance of electrolytes is even more crucial than for others. There are certain groups of people who may need more electrolytes to support their specific needs and lifestyles. Let's take a closer look at who these individuals are.

Athletes and people who engage in intense physical activity are among those who may require higher levels of electrolytes. When we exercise, we lose electrolytes through sweat, particularly sodium and potassium. These minerals are crucial for maintaining fluid balance, muscle function, and nerve communication. Specifically, athletes who are engaging in high-intensity exercise lasting longer than 60-75 minutes are the individuals who are in need of extra electrolyte replenishment. Additionally, if an athlete is competing after longer airline travel (which causes dehydration) or is exercising in hot and humid environments, additional electrolyte support can be beneficial. By replenishing electrolytes, athletes can enhance their performance and support proper hydration.

Individuals who live in hot and humid climates may also need more electrolytes. In these conditions, we tend to sweat more to cool down, resulting in increased electrolyte loss. Replenishing electrolytes is essential to prevent dehydration and maintain optimal bodily function.

People who have certain medical conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders or kidney disease, may require additional electrolytes. These conditions can impact the body's ability to absorb and regulate electrolytes, leading to imbalances. It's important for individuals with these conditions to work closely with their healthcare provider to monitor their electrolyte levels and make necessary adjustments.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women may also need higher levels of electrolytes. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, a woman's body undergoes significant changes and additional fluids are required. Adequate electrolyte intake can help support proper fluid balance and ensure the health of both the mother and baby.

Ultimately, it's important to remember that everyone's electrolyte needs can vary based on factors such as age, gender, activity level, and overall health. If you fall into one of these categories or if you have any concerns about your electrolyte balance, be on the lookout for signs of low electrolyte levels. Signs of low electrolyte levels include: fatigue, headache, nausea, blood pressure changes, muscle cramps, and low energy. If you are curious or concerned about your electrolyte levels it's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance.

Who Needs Less Electrolytes?

While electrolytes are crucial for maintaining optimal health and well-being, there are certain individuals who may require fewer electrolytes than others. Let's explore who these people are and why they may need less electrolytes.

Firstly, individuals with certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease or heart conditions, may need to limit their intake of certain electrolytes. These conditions can affect the body's ability to regulate electrolyte levels, and consuming too many electrolytes can put strain on the organs. It's important for these individuals to work closely with their healthcare provider to determine the appropriate level of electrolyte intake.

Secondly, individuals who consume a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods may not need to be as vigilant about their electrolyte intake. Many whole foods naturally contain electrolytes, so if you are consistently incorporating foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins into your diet, you are likely getting an adequate amount of electrolytes. However, it's still important for these individuals to maintain a balanced diet and stay properly hydrated to support overall health.

Remember, everyone's electrolyte needs can vary based on individual factors. It's always a good idea to listen to your body, stay hydrated, and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your electrolyte balance.

Foods High in Electrolytes 

foods high in electrolytes

When it comes to electrolytes, our mind goes directly to sports drinks. While sports drinks do often contain a high amount of electrolytes, they also contain a lot of sugar. When we are not participating in intense exercise that lasts longer than an 75 minutes, our body really does not need that additional sugar. Thus, by consuming electrolytes through foods, or through non-caloric beverages (like GOOD IDEA), we can ingest our daily allotment of electrolytes without the additional sugar.  

When it comes to maintaining a balanced level of electrolytes in your body, one of the most important factors is your diet. There are plenty of foods that are naturally rich in electrolytes, making it easy to incorporate them into your daily meals and snacks.

One of the most well-known sources of electrolytes are bananas. They’re packed with potassium, portable, versatile, and provide a quick boost of energy. Other fruits that are high in electrolytes include oranges, watermelon, and avocados.

If you're looking for a savory option, try incorporating more leafy green vegetables into your diet. Spinach and kale are not only high in essential vitamins and minerals, but they also contain electrolytes like calcium and magnesium. Broccoli is another fantastic choice, as it contains a combination of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

For those who prefer a protein-rich diet, lean meats like chicken and turkey are excellent choices. Not only do they provide essential amino acids, but they also contain electrolytes like phosphorus and potassium. Seafood, such as salmon and trout, are also great sources of electrolytes like magnesium and potassium. Yogurt and Greek yogurt are also protein-dense foods that contain electrolytes.

Don't forget about nuts and seeds! Almonds, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds are all excellent sources of electrolytes like calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Plus, they make for a satisfying and nutritious snack.

There are also beverage options that contain electrolytes without the additional sugar of a sports drink. GOOD IDEA is a lightly carbonated sparking water that contains electrolytes, chromium picolinate, and five amino acids. Together these ingredients work together to reduce post-meal blood sugar by an average of 25%. Other drink or drink powder options include coconut water, DripDrop, Zero Sugar Propel, or Nuun Sport Electrolyte Hydration Tablets. However, GOOD IDEA is only drink amongst that list to also have blood sugar reducing benefits.

Take Away Message

Understanding electrolytes and their functions is crucial for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Electrolytes are essential minerals that help maintain fluid balance, facilitate muscle contractions, enable nerve communication, and regulate the pH of our bodies. Without a proper balance of electrolytes, our cells and organs would not be able to function optimally.

By replenishing electrolytes through our diet and hydration, we can ensure that our bodies are getting the essential nutrients they need to function properly. Incorporating electrolyte-rich foods such as bananas, leafy green vegetables, lean meats, seafood, GOOD IDEA, nuts and seeds can help maintain a balanced level of electrolytes in our bodies. These foods and drinks not only provide essential electrolytes, but they also offer a wide range of other important vitamins and minerals.

It's also important to remember that individual electrolyte needs may vary based on factors such as age, gender, activity level, and overall health. Athletes, individuals living in hot climates, those with certain medical conditions, and pregnant or breastfeeding women may require higher levels of electrolytes. On the other hand, sedentary individuals or those with certain medical conditions may need fewer electrolytes.

So, next time you reach for electrolyte-rich foods, remember the vital role these electrolytes play in keeping your body running smoothly.

Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick