My daughter (6) came into the kitchen after running around outside and asked for a glass of juice. As I handed it to her, she said “Aren’t you surprised that I’m wanting juice since I normally only ask for water?” in her smarty pants tone. I answered “not really. You’ve been playing really hard and you’re sweaty, so your body needs to restore its electrolytes.” She thought about this for a moment; looked up at me with big serious eyes and said, “I didn’t know the body had electric lights.”
True story and of course, I laughed. The word “electrolytes” can be seen on many sports drinks and juices these days, but many don’t realize what these really are or how they work in the body. Electrolyte is defined as a substance containing free ions that acts as an electrically charged medium. These play an important role in balancing the intra and extra-cellular fluids in the body, always moving in a subtle dance that regulates things like the pH of blood, how hydrated your cells are, muscular contractions and the ability to release toxins through sweat among other things.
Your cells basically use electrolytes as conductors to send messages across themselves to other cells. These include nerve impulses, which let cells react to stimuli, and muscle contractions, which let you move. Your kidneys are assigned the difficult task of keeping your blood electrolyte levels consistent, no matter what else is going on with the body. If the balance is off, one of the first things your hormones can do to let you know is trigger the thirst reflex. Often the simple act of drinking water will help the body balance itself out, so never ignore it.
Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate are considered the most important electrolytes when we are looking at physiology. It is important to remember that the key here is balance between all the essential components, not just to take in as much of them as we can. Too much or too little of any of these components can cause serious problems in the body. For instance a severe potassium imbalance “causes abnormal electrical conduction in the heart and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm problems. High potassium levels are most often associated with kidney failure, in which potassium levels build up and cannot be excreted in the urine” (WebMD). Sodium imbalances can cause symptoms ranging from lethargy to coma and seizures. Understanding how important appropriate electrolyte levels are can help us to appreciate the body’s work in keeping them balanced.
Most of the sports drinks on the market concentrate only on sodium and potassium, since these are the electrolytes that we lose through sweat. But are you really sweating enough to need supplementation in this way? Some trainers say yes, others say that it is only when you are really pushing the body for hours on end, say when running Iron Man, that this is needed. If that is the case, I will never, ever need a Gatorade! Most of us aren’t exactly low on sodium either and could probably stand to lose a little.
Other circumstances that can cause a dramatic drop in electrolyte levels are severe vomiting, diarrhea, intoxication or starvation. In extreme cases it may be necessary to have electrolytes introduced intravenously into the bloodstream by a doctor. It is not recommended that parents ever give sports drinks to children since they contain way too much sugar and the mineral dosages are too high for little bodies. A much better choice for a child who has been out in the sun would be some fresh fruit or a diluted fruit and veggie juice that will contain naturally contain a certain amount of electrolytes. Usually a good diet provides everything the body needs to keep everything in check and keep the ‘electric lights’ shinning brightly.