Electrolytes, What are they and Why are they Important?

Your body is made up of a large portion of liquids containing substances called electrolytes.  These electrolyte substances are small substances that a body needs to stay in good electrical balance. Items such as sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphate carry electrical charges that are responsible for stimulating muscles and nerves. They also regulate the amount of fluids throughout your body, which affects cellular function, blood volume and blood pressure. While, sodium plays the primary role in water regulation, they all help keep body fluids balanced and your cells and muscles working properly. Just like a car cannot run without the proper amount of water and oil in its engine, your body needs a certain mixture of fuel and these electrolyte substances to be able to function maximally. Your body maintains a specific amount of each electrolyte because a precise proportion of each one is needed for all of them to work properly. Any time you lose fluids from your body, you also lose electrolytes, especially sodium.


Under normal circumstances, healthy adults get plenty of electrolytes from eating a balanced daily diet, but excessive sweating, vomiting and diarrhea result in a larger than normal loss of electrolytes. When that happens, drinking electrolyte water can helps restore the necessary electrolytes and minerals. Each person loses a different amount of sodium and electrolytes when he sweats. As a general guideline, the University of Arizona recommends dissolving 1/4 to 1 teaspoon of salt in 12 ounces of hot water, then mixing it with enough 100 percent fruit juice to reach a volume of 32 ounces. This equals four 8 oz servings.


For everyday hydration, women should drink 9 cups of fluids or 72 oz, while men need 12 cups of fluid daily or 96 oz. The University of Michigan recommends that if you’re in a hot environment or participating in sustained exercise, drink at least 2 cups (16oz) of water before your activity and 1 cup (8oz) every 20 minutes while you exercise. For most people, electrolyte replacement is only necessary when exercise lasts longer than an hour. Even though you can use electrolyte water instead of plain water, check the brand you buy for the amount and type of electrolytes it contains. If it has too much sodium, you may exceed the Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily intake for sodium of 1,500 milligrams. You also will need extra potassium in your fluids if you have exercised excessively and have been ill for several days with vomiting or diarrhea.


The amount and type of electrolytes you need each day can vary based on your own body’s needs, medications and other possible health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes. It is always best to check with your doctor if you aren’t sure about your electrolyte needs and simple blood test for levels of sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus can be done to help you determine your needs. It’s always best to get your electrolytes from whole foods such as bananas and orange juice for potassium or dairy containing food for calcium. In western diets that tend to be very high is salt, it’s easy to get enough sodium in our diets. In fact, we often get too much dietary sodium which can lead to fluid retention and high blood pressure so it’s important to understand what is recommended for you when it comes to replacing electrolytes. As a general rule of thumb, it is usually never safe to take over the counter salt tablets or potassium tablets without checking with your doctor first, as levels of these very important electrolytes can get very high very fast, which is just as dangerous as having very low levels of these important substances.


When in doubt, ask your doctor. Just remember that more isn’t necessarily better but enough is just right!! Until next time, here’s to the best of your health.


Elizabeth Salada MD

Internal Medicine and Wellness

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