What Are Electrolytes and Why Are They Important

Jerry Shelton

3/8/20235 min read

On December 31, 2019, on of my good friends ended up in the emergency room. For months he’d been struggling to walk, and had even bought a cane to help. He described his condition as “my muscles feel like they do after a really hard workout. They’re just jelly.” When he woke up on New Year’s Eve, he apparently couldn’t roll out of bed and stand up. He just rolled out of bed and flopped to the floor. With some assistance from his son and wife, he made it upright and they drove him to the Emergency Room. There, after a battery of tests and MRI scans, they determined the reason for his muscle failure was a severe electrolyte imbalance, specifically with potassium. They later traced the severe imbalance to hyper-thyroidism. While he remained in good spirits, he explained there were a few big learning moments for him. First, bananas are only mid-range as a source of potassium. It turns out avocados and potatoes have much more postassium (who knew?) Second, electrolytes matter. A LOT.

Before we continue, I need to make something perfectly clear. I’m not a medical doctor. Don’t take anything in this blog as medical advice. This is an informative commentary ONLY. Be smart about what you put in your body. This is a blog that shares what I’ve learned, and should encourage you to do more research and talk with your medical provider for further advice.

That being said, let’s get into what electrolytes are, and why they’re important (especially when you’re out actively engaged in sports, like skiing and biking!)

The following information comes from https://medlineplus.gov/ which is part of the United States of America’s National Library of Medicine.

Electrolytes are minerals in your body that have an “electric charge,” hence the name “electro”lytes. They’re in your blood, urine, cellular tissue and other body fluids. Electrolytes are important for a few reasons:

  • They balance the amount of water in your body.

  • They balance your body’s pH level (acidic or basic to neutral 7.0pH)

  • They are absolutely CRITICAL in moving nutrients into your cells and moving waste OUT.

  • They make sure your nerves, muscles (including your heart) and brain work the way they should!

The electrolytes in your system are sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium. These are brough into your body through the foods you consume and fluids you drink.

The level of electrolytes in your body is can become too high, or drop too low. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the largest contributor is the amount of water you take into your body. It should be equal to the amount of water you’re losing.

Keeping your electrolytes in balance is one of the reasons they tell athletes or people doing physical activities “stay hydrated.” Water balance helps keep everything working correctly internally. Especially at the cellular level.

Now, we’re going to talk about muscles, and how they get their energy. This information comes from the National Library of Medicine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1842855/

When your body is actively engaged in work, it is using muscles. Where do muscles get their energy? From something called ATP. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to be exact. ATP is the sole fuel for muscle contraction. When ATP runs out, your muscles really struggle. ATP can be continually resynthesized by your body, but it takes time.

Think about anytime you’ve ever had to use your muscles and gotten to the point they start hurting and become weak. This might be at the gym when you’re doing repetitions of weights and then just cannot continue and need to take a break… or it could be when you’re standing on a ladder holding something over your head, and then need to stop and … take a break… so your muscles stop hurting and you can continue. This is the same thing in action, in both cases. Your muscles work until fatigued (ATP runs out), then you need to relax them for a bit to allow the ATP to build back up, then you can get back to work!

It's why taking breaks helps recharge your system. The thing about ATP is that it uses a variety of electrolytes (Phosphate and potassium are huge in the this one), to both recharge and move waste out of the cellular structure. It’s the specific reason my friend couldn’t use his muscles, and they constantly felt like they were at the point of fatigue… lack of potassium kept him from rebuilding his ATP in the muscles (or something like that), and his muscles were sitting at the “failure point” constantly. In fact, the “fix” he received in the hospital was a big does of potassium. Unlike when he came in, in a wheelchair, he walked out to the car just fine. Amazing stuff, electrolytes.

The purpose of this blog isn’t to get into the massive science about how electrolytes move through the cellular structure. It’s about getting you to understand electrolytes are CRITICAL.

Hopefully, you’re at that point. Now. How do we make sure we’re getting the right amount, but not over doing it? Well, in any given day, if you’re replenishing your system with intake, you’re doing the right thing.I’m sure you’ve heard of Gatorade. You might know the history, but if you don’t, the history is pretty interesting! In 1965 a team of scientists in a University of Florida lab created a drink to combat negative affects of heat as experienced by the University’s football team. Water alone was insufficient to replace minerals and electrolytes consumed through exertion.

The scientists wanted to create a drink that replaced bodily fluids that were lost through exertion, but had the right combination of salts and sugars that could be absorbed quickly and efficiently by thebody. They wanted to create an electrolyte replacement drink. And they did. Humorously, in the early days, the drink was absolutely NOT a hit with the players. Reportedly, it tasted so bad that some athletes vomited after drinking it. That brings a whole different level of “bring the Gatorade jug after the game to pour on the coach,” doesn’t it! LOL

If you think about it, this makes sense. The first version was probably more like synthetic sweat than tasty drink. Flavor matters. Once they got the flavors corrected, obviously Gatorade has done well. In fact, by 2015, royalties for the group that invented Gatorade, as well as some of their family members and friends, had topped one BILLION dollars. Incredible.

It became popular because it works. In many people’s opinion (including my own), Gatorade doesn’t taste nearly as good as a nice fruit juice, but it gets the job done.

When you’re on the slopes or the trails, and you’re working hard, remember that your body only has a limited supply of electrolytes to replenish cellular stores and keep things “moving” at a cellular level. Stop and take a break now and then. Eat a snack, have a sports drink, stay hydrated. Electrolytes matter.

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