Putting the ‘Electro’ in Electrolytes

I love electrolytes. Anytime the word “electro” can be worked into a nutrition term, then I’m a fan. Hell, I’ll eat and drink more electrolytes just because the name is cool. But electrolytes, like antioxidants, are more than a sexy nutrition term.

Electrolytes are minerals with electrical powers. They use their electricity to send communication signals throughout the body to enable muscle function, nerve function, and maintain our body’s water balance. If we didn’t have them, we’d have a power outage and our body would shut down. If our body is a factory, and vitamins and minerals are its workers, then electrolytes are our electric, communications, and water companies.

There are four main electrolytes. The two big ones are sodium and potassium, but there’s also magnesium and calcium. Here is what they do (in the simplest terms):

Muscle Function

When muscles flex and the heart beats, electrolytes move in and of the muscle to make sure it functions properly. When a neuron signals a muscle to flex, sodium zips into the muscle cell and potassium zaps out. When your muscle relaxes, this process is reversed. If we don’t have a balanced supply of sodium and potassium, then communications will be disrupted and our muscles will cramp and our heart will beat irregularly. Sodium and potassium work similarly in nerve cells too. They move inside and outside our neurons to regulate their electrical charge as they move throughout our body transmitting communications from the brain.

In muscle a similar process occurs with magnesium and calcium. When your bicep flexes, calcium zips into the muscle cells and helps the muscle fibers contract. When a muscle relaxes, calcium zaps back out. Magnesium is calcium’s counterpart in this process. When your muscles are relaxed, magnesium is active inside your muscles. But when you show off your bicep or your sexy calves, calcium pushes magnesium out of the way and takes over the job. Electrolytes are constantly moving inside and outside our cells.

To learn more about calcium, read about how calcium works with vitamin D in our body’s Bones and Teeth Division.

Water Balance

Our body is about 60 percent water. We’re essentially a walking water balloon held together with skin. Sodium and potassium work together to balance the water equally inside our body. Sodium attracts and binds to water. It’s often considered the bad guy, kind of like Magneto of the X-men, because similar to how he can attract and control metal, sodium can do the same with water. Too much sodium in the diet will increase water flow to the outside of our cells, making us feel as bloated as the Goodyear blimp. This can lead an increase in blood pressure, which puts extra strain on the heart. But potassium, on the other hand, is like Professor X, in that he works to counter some of the bad effects of sodium and bring water back into your cells. If potassium is not in good supply, then Magneto wins.

Your kidneys are the control center. They regulate how much water, sodium, and potassium is in your body. All the extra stuff you don’t need, you piss away. But over time, if your diet is high in sodium, and you get high blood pressure, the kidneys could become damaged (leading to kidney failure). Then water and electrolytes will become severely imbalanced. Blood pressure will shoot through the roof, then you’ll get heart disease. This is why a diet rich in sodium isn’t something you want.


It’s important to consume an adequate amount of fluids and electrolytes. The average American eats about one and a half times the amount of sodium they need in a day–too many chips and cheeseburgers–especially since the majority of the country is inactive and never sweats. Olympic athletes might need the extra sodium, but Joe Blow who binge watches Netflix doesn’t. Aim for 2,300 milligrams per day.

Americans, conversely, don’t get enough potassium in the diet. So eat more bananas, milk, vegetable juice, and potatoes. Potassium is now listed on the nutrition facts label, so it’s much easier to keep track. Shoot for 4,700 milligrams per day.

Drink more fluids too. The more you pee every day the better. In general, males need roughly 13 cups of fluids a day and females need about nine cups.

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