MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What Are Electrolytes & Do You Need More of Them?

Some folks, like myself, will reach for a sports drink like Gatorade instead of plain water following an intense workout, because sports drinks are supposedly filled with electrolytes, which we’re supposed to replenish after strenuous activity…right? But what exactly are electrolytes? And does your body really need to be filled with them?

Electrolytes are a catch-all term for substances that help your body with a variety of processes, including chemical reactions & fluid balance. They’re called electrolytes because, when they’re dissolved in water, their positive or negative electrical charges contract muscles & control hydration levels. 

Sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate are all considered electrolytes. Too much or too little of each can lead to a different reaction by your body, including weakness, muscle contractions, fatigue, or confusion. You usually get all the electrolytes your body needs through a regular, healthy diet. But, while there are a number of different medical conditions that can affect your overall electrolyte levels, usually electrolytes are thrown off balance by exertion & the loss of fluids through sweating.

So, what should you do if you’ve lost electrolytes? Should you try replacing them? Well, the Harvard School of Public Health says you’re not likely going to suffer any ill effects from a moderate treadmill jog or light weight training, as electrolyte depletion typically takes only place after an hour or more of strenuous exercise. And only after sweating considerably for a prolonged period of time should you consider rapid electrolyte replenishment with a sports drink, especially ones that contain a good bit of sugar.

So, unless you’re engaged in a serious, intense athletic endeavor or have a bigger underlying medical condition, you probably don’t really need to be too concerned about your electrolyte levels.

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