What's the main purpose of electrolytes?

Dear Alice,

What is the main purpose for electrolytes? Why does the human body need them?

Dear Reader,

Electrolytes are vital to a person’s health and survival — the human body relies on them to perform its most basic functions. Electrolytes are minerals that can be dissolved in bodily fluids, including the bloodstream. The six most significant electrolytes are sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium. Of these six types of electrolytes, sodium, chloride, and potassium are the most crucial. When electrolytes dissolve and separate (dissociate) in liquid, positively and negatively charged particles (ions) form. Since electrolytes carry a charge, they can conduct an electrical current in water. This ability to conduct a current is crucial. Why? The current enables electrolytes to regulate how and where fluids are distributed throughout the body. Essentially, electrolytes help maintain the body's fluid levels. They also help with muscle function and pH (acid-base) balance in the body. Eager to examine electrolytes further? Read on!

Basically, cells need to be bathed in fluids — inside and out in the body. To control fluid passage across their membranes, cells regulate the movement of electrolytes in and out of them. This is because liquid follows electrolytes (especially sodium) around wherever they go. These actions help maintain a state of fluid balance. This is also how electrolytes transport nutrients into cells and waste out of them. Additionally, the difference in electrical balance inside and outside of cells allows for transmission of nerve impulses, contraction or relaxation of muscles, blood pressure control, and proper gland functioning. In addition, the presence of electrolytes determines the acidity or pH of some fluids, especially blood.

Each of the six principal electrolytes functions differently in the body and, as a result, has a different purpose. Sodium is responsible for both maintaining extracellular fluid volume and regulating the membrane potential of cells. Sodium also works together with potassium to regulate cell movement. Calcium possesses a number of functions in the body. It plays a role in processes such as skeletal mineralization, muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, blood clotting, and hormonal secretion. Like calcium, magnesium also serves many functions. It's involved in ​​cell metabolism, muscle contraction and relaxation, neurological function, and neurotransmitter release. Taking the form of hydroxyapatite, 85 percent of the total amount of phosphorus in the body is in the bones and teeth. Thus, phosphorus is a vital element in our metabolic pathways. As for chloride, it's critical for maintaining movement both in and out of the cell. In short — these electrolytes are great multitaskers!

Because each type of electrolyte serves a different purpose in the body, they each offer particular benefits for a variety of medical conditions. For instance, a common treatment for heart failure is diuretics, also known as water pills, which pose a risk of creating an imbalance of electrolytes — particularly potassium, bicarbonate, and magnesium — in the body. For this reason, a health care professional might give a patient diagnosed with heart failure a workup of these three electrolytes to maintain the balance needed for their body to function properly.

You might be wondering what happens if you don't have enough electrolytes in your body. If a person loses large amounts of fluids quickly, electrolytes may become unbalanced. This imbalance can be caused by many different occurrences, such as excessive sweating. When a person sweats a lot during intense physical activity, for example, they lose critical electrolytes such as sodium and chloride. It's critical to stay hydrated during bouts of excessive sweating by drinking water and other fluids that contain electrolytes to avoid dehydration. Rehydrating in this way replaces the electrolytes lost from excessive sweating by reintroducing fluid back into your body, which ensures that your organs can do their job. However, it's key not to take in too much fluid during physical activity, since this could cause issues such as exercise-induced low sodium or hyponatremia. To ensure you don’t overhydrate, it's recommended that you drink fluids only until you’ve quenched your thirst.

How can you be sure to keep plenty of electrolytes in your system? A well-balanced diet usually supplies an adequate amount of electrolytes. Lots of Americans get plenty of sodium and chloride from the salty foods they’re already eating, such as salted meats, nuts, cold cuts, margarine, and butter. However, it's recommended that you avoid eating too much salt, as it can lead to complications such as hypertension and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Another way to up your electrolyte intake is by eating fruits and veggies such as bananas, potatoes with skins, dried peas, and prune juice, as well as dairy products, meats, and nuts, all of which provide sufficient potassium. You might also be familiar with sports drinks that contain electrolytes, but these are usually only recommended to consume after participating in endurance events lasting over an hour. For additional information on eating well-balanced meals full of the minerals your body requires, check out Optimal Nutrition in the Go Ask Alice! archives.

Hope your new knowledge is electrifying,

Last updated Oct 29, 2021
Originally published Feb 23, 2001

Submit a new comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

The answer you entered for the CAPTCHA was not correct.