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What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are slightly charged substances that our body needs for a wide range of functions.
When a salt is dissolved in water, the compound breaks up into its individual components. For example, one of the most common salts, sodium chloride (NaCl) breaks down into Na+ and Cl–. As you can see, the sodium electrolyte has a slightly positive charge and the chloride electrolyte has a slightly negative charge. Na+ and Cl– are two common electrolytes.
However, these aren't the only important electrolytes. Other electrolytes in our bodies include magnesium (Mg++), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca++), phosphate (HPO4–) and bicarbonate (HCO3–).
Electrolytes are commonly found in our diet and also in the fluids we drink.
What do they do?
Electrolytes are involved in a wide range of functions.
They're particularly important for maintaining hydration levels, as the movement of sodium and potassium in and out of cells determines how much water our body retains or flushes out.
Our nerve cells need these slightly charged particles to help carry electrical impulses around the body. This is important for a healthy nervous system, good mental health and proper sleep. It's also vital for muscle function, as electrical signals need to be able to reach muscle cells to tell them when to relax and contract.
Without the correct electrolytes or electrolyte balance, your muscles may become weak and you may experience cramps, twitches or spams. You may also experience disorders such as anxiety or sleep problems, as well as fatigue and joint and bone disorders. An imbalance will also affect your hydration levels and your acid-alkali balance, and can also affect your respiratory system and even your immune system.
In fact, the whole body depends on this delicate balance of electrolytes to keep it functioning properly.
The main electrolytes and their functions
There are seven key electrolytes:
- Sodium (Na+) is important for regulating water and fluid balance in the body. It can be found in the bloodstream and tells the kidneys how much water needs to be retained and how much should be excreted. It helps generate electrical impulses along nerve cells which carry messages to and from the brain—this means it's also important in muscle function. Too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure, and sodium is a component of salt, which is why we're always being told to limit the amount of salt in our diets.
- Potassium (K+) is found inside cells and is important for regulating water and fluid in the body. It, too, is important for muscle function, including involuntary muscles like those surrounding the heart, which contract rhythmically to keep it pumping. It's also important for generating the electrical impulses that are important in nerve signalling. Potassium can be imbalanced by too much sodium.
- Chloride (Cl–) is another electrolyte that is important for maintaining fluid balance in the cells. Like sodium, it's found outside the cells and helps regulate the water going in and out of cells. It also plays a role in regulating the body's pH balance.
- Bicarbonate (HCO3–) is also important in regulating pH in the body. Since it is an alkali, it helps neutralize excess acid in the blood and digestive system.
- Calcium (Ca++) is famous for its role in bone health—it helps build strong bones and teeth, and is important for repairing damage to bones and muscle. Too little calcium can result in rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults. It is important for muscle contractions, including those of the heart, and for nerve signalling. Too much calcium can contribute to kidney stones.
- Phosphate (HPO4–) also plays a key role in strengthening bones and teeth, and is important in manufacturing proteins that the body uses to grow and repair cells. Too much phosphate can displace calcium and weaken bones. This is why carbonated soft drinks that contain phosphoric acid are often linked to bone problems.
- Magnesium (Mg++): With this one, a better question to ask might be what doesn't magnesium do? It's involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body and is vital for cell function, enzyme activity, muscle function, nerve signalling, sleep and regulating mood. A lack of magnesium can contribute to muscle cramps, PMS symptoms, menopause symptoms, fatigue and depression. Magnesium and calcium are closely linked: without sufficient magnesium, you can't absorb calcium.
These electrolytes work in combination to promote the body's central functions, so it's not enough to focus simply on the "most important" one. For example, to contract and relax muscles your body requires calcium, potassium, magnesium AND sodium.
What can cause an imbalance?
There are many reasons why the electrolytes in your body may become imbalanced, including:
- Strenuous exercise: This results in water loss and sodium loss, which together contribute to heat cramps.
- High temperatures and heat waves: Again, increased sweating means you lose more water and sodium.
- Malabsorption of nutrients: If you're not digesting food properly, you can't absorb enough electrolytes, no matter how well you eat.
- Vomiting and diarrhea: These can result in water loss with concomitant electrolyte loss.
- Kidney problems: If your kidneys aren't functioning properly, they'll struggle to maintain your electrolyte and water balance.
- Some drugs, such as diuretics: This promotes water loss through excess urination, which can throw your electrolyte balance off.
- Age: This is more a risk factor than a cause. For many reasons, as you get older, your body becomes less efficient at maintaining your electrolyte balance. This could be because of reduced kidney function or poor diet, or because the digestive system naturally slows down as you age, so you're less efficient at absorbing important nutrients.
So where can I find electrolytes?
For many of us, sufficient levels of electrolytes can be found in our diets. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of electrolytes, so if your diet is rich in these foods you should be fine.
However, there are often times when we need an electrolyte boost, such as after exercising or experiencing high temperatures, after becoming dehydrated, or if we experience heat exhaustion. Over the summer, many of us will require more electrolytes as the warmer weather causes us to sweat more.
Athletes, gym-goers and runners will likely need to replace their electrolytes regularly all year round.
Sports drinks are rich in electrolytes, as they're specifically designed for sports people and athletes to replace their electrolytes. However, they're also high in sugars and artificial chemicals, so they're not a good option for regular use. They may be useful in emergencies though, such as following an episode of heat exhaustion or food poisoning.
For regular replacement of electrolytes, a healthier option would be advisable. Plant waters such as coconut, birch or maple water are naturally high in electrolytes and natural sugars. They're effective, but for many people, they're an acquired taste.
You might want to consider Molkosan Berry, for a few good reasons. First, it contains two key electrolytes—calcium and potassium—which are both vital for the body's central functions. And second, it contains lactic acid, which supports good bacteria in the gut to make sure you absorb more nutrients from your food.