What is an electrolyte?

You’ve seen the ads for the special drink that replaces electrolytes you lose when you sweat. For many, they just accept the fact, that an electrolyte is important and we need to replace them.

But what the hell is an electrolyte?

Is it just a marketing ploy devised by the Gatorade people to sell more sugar water?

The short answer is yes. Electrolytes are real. Think of the human body as a complex machine; a superhighway of cells, tissues, and fluids responsible for directing a ton of electrical impulses throughout the body. For those impulses to perform at peak levels requires that the superhighway is in peak condition. That’s where electrolytes come in. Electrolytes help those impulses reach their intended destination correctly and quickly.

Do I need an electrolyte-rich diet?

Lack of electrolyte or an electrolyte imbalance can actually be detrimental to your health. A good example for runners is muscle contraction, which requires calcium, potassium, and sodium. A lack of these electrolytes can result in muscle weakness or even cramping. Electrolyte levels are determined by food and water consumption and maintaining the right balance comes down to proper nutrition.

Breaking down an electrolyte

You’ve probably done that experiment in science class where you dissolve table salt in liquid. What happens? The salt, on the molecular level, begins to break down and this creates an electrically conductive solution. Sodium (Na+), and chloride (CI-) are the components of table salt. Any fluid that breaks down in liquid the way that salt does, will conduct electricity. And that is what makes an electrolyte. Your body has a number of electrolytes. This includes sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate.

Each electrolyte plays a vital role in your body’s chemistry. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Sodium is an important electrolyte

This is an essential electrolyte responsible for controlling:

  • The total amount of water in the body
  • Regulating blood volume
  • Maintaining nerve and muscle functionality

The optimum level is about 2.5 grams of sodium chloride (salt) per day. Excess salt intake can lead to dehydration and too little can cause headaches, fatigue and muscle cramps, and spasms.


On the cellular level, chloride works with sodium to help maintain the proper balance of pressure and fluid within the cells, as well as acidity balance. So, the best way to get chloride into the body is through the salt intake.


Potassium is a major player inside the cells and vital in muscular function and heartbeat regulation. Milk, meat, fruits, and vegetables are great sources of potassium. You may think that since there are bunches of them at the finish line, bananas are a good source of potassium. They are pretty good, but a medium-sized avocado has 20% of your recommended daily intake (RDI) and a large baked potato has 34% RDI, whereas bananas come in much further down the list at 12% RDI.


Magnesium is necessary to perform over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including DNA/RNA synthesis within the cells, maintaining normal nerve function and heart rate stabilizes blood sugar, and promotes bone and teeth formation.

You can get magnesium in:

  • Nuts
  • Spices
  • Leafy greens
  • Coffee
  • Tea

Calcium is an electolyte with so many functions

Most people know that calcium is good for bones and teeth, but calcium is also important in:

  • Nerve transmission
  • Muscle contraction
  • Blood clotting

It is the most prevalent mineral in the human body, 99% of it found within the skeletal structure. It is also important in the bloodstream, a lack thereof over time will begin supplementing from the bones, which can lead to osteoporosis. Drink milk for calcium, your mom used to say. Turns out mom was right. Although milk is a good source of calcium, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, collard greens, and canned sardines and even almond milk are also very good sources of calcium.


Phosphate works together with calcium to help strengthen bones and teeth. But it is also essential to energy production inside the cells which is vital in tissue repair and growth.


Proper pH levels, the right levels of acidity, in the body are vital. Because during workouts, your muscles produce lactic acid, your kidneys release bicarbonate into your system as a counter. Bicarbonate’s role is to maintain a proper balance to prevent things like tissue damage around the central nervous system.

Final thoughts on electolytes

Each of these electrolytes plays a critical role in keeping your body running well. Most people don’t understand that it’s all in the balance. And that any disruption to this equilibrium to either toxic or deficient levels can lead to damaging effects. Now that you know exactly what electrolytes are and the proper balance, the solution is simple. Eat a balanced healthy diet, and if you feel the need, go ahead and down a Gatorade.