Continuing on in our Simple Food Terms Explained series, we’ll next take a look at electrolytes. You often hear them mentioned, especially in combination with discussions about drinking enough and staying well-hydrated while exercising. But what are electrolytes, really, and why are they important to staying healthy?
What Are Electrolytes?
In simple terms, electrolytes are minerals that break down to form salt ions. An ion is an atom that has either lost or gained electrons, making it carry either a positive or negative electrical charge. Your body needs these charged salt ions because they are what allow cells to carry electrical impulses.
These impulses are what keep your nervous system working, stimulating your muscles and nerves to move. Because your heart is also a muscle, it depends on the right balance of these positive and negatively charged ions to regulate its proper function. Your kidneys are the chief regulators of your electrolyte levels, and they strive to keep the proper amounts in your bloodstream in the correct balance. If your electrolyte levels get too low, your kidneys will attempt to increase their concentration by removing water from your body through producing more urine. Likewise, if the levels get too high, your body will signal you to drink more fluids by making you feel thirsty.
If your electrolytes still manage to get too high or too low, an imbalance can occur that may cause serious health issues if not properly addressed. Headaches, fatigue, nausea, heart irregularities, muscle pain and other more serious complications can arise from not having the right mix and concentration of electrolytes. It is especially important during vigorous exercise to make sure you don’t disrupt the delicate balance.
What Does Exercise Have To Do With It?
One way your electrolytes can become depleted is due to sweat. Your sweat contains varying amounts of sodium, chloride, and potassium. This is what makes sweat seem salty. The more you sweat, the more electrolytes you lose, which affects the equilibrium.
Sports drinks typically contain electrolytes to help you replace some of what you sweat out. Enjoying a salty snack or meal after a workout can replace some of the lost sodium. Sodium is fairly plentiful in our diet and easy to find. If it tastes salty, it probably has sodium!
Calcium is another electrolyte that’s well-known and readily found in yogurt, milk and other dairy products as well as most leafy green vegetables. Beyond those, you may not be so sure where to find other important electrolytes. Here are some common food sources of other electrolytes our bodies need:
- Table Salt
- Sweet Potatoes
- Nut butters
- Leafy greens