What Are Electrolytes and Do You Need More? | Stephen Coleclough
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What Are Electrolytes and Do You Need More?

What Are Electrolytes and Do You Need More?

“Electrolytes” may be one of the most over-used terms in the world of sports supplements.

Advertisements for sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, PediaLyte, and Lucozade constantly tell us that electrolytes are an essential part of the body.

According to their ads, failure to get enough electrolytes means you won’t “crush it!” on the sports field.

But what is the truth about electrolytes?

Are electrolytes essential or is it another marketing gimmick?

Are sports drinks worth drinking at all?

This post will answer these questions and a few more.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are salts that dissolve into negative and positive charged particles, making a solution capable of conducting electricity.

Some of the most common electrolytes are Sodium Chloride (NaCl), Sodium (Na), Chloride (Cl), Potassium (K), Magnesium (Mg), Calcium (Ca), and Phosphate (PO4).

Electrolytes perform some essential roles in the human body.

The most important roles are controlling the flow of water into cells and affecting how nerve impulses work.

Each cell has ion channels within the cell membranes that regulate the flow of positively and negatively charged electrolytes.

Water follows the electrolytes and goes to the side of the cell that has the greater number of electrolytes — a process called osmosis.

If electrolytes were not available, the cells could not obtain more water, causing them to shrivel up and die.

Alternately, if the cell already contained a lot of water but no electrolytes were available, the water couldn’t escape the cell and it could burst from being too full.

In nerve cells, positive ions are used to spark electrical impulses.

These electrical impulses carry information through the body that keep our heart beating, lungs breathing brains thinking, and perform other important tasks.

Electrolytes help nerve cells function by making it possible for the body to conduct electricity.

What happens to electrolytes when you work out?

When you work out, the body will begin to produce sweat in an effort to cool down.

It creates sweat by releasing water and electrolytes from cells, then directing this solution towards the sweat glands which push it onto the surface of the skin.

Electrolytes are the reason why your sweat tastes salty.

Unfortunately, if you sweat a lot you will lose a lot of electrolytes.

This can lead to negative consequences including an irregular or rapid heart beat, high blood pressure, breathing problems, and poor performance.

So, I need a sports drink, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Multiple research papers have discovered that most people can obtain enough electrolytes through the food that they eat.

You can find potassium, magnesium, calcium and the other electrolytes in a wide variety of foods including bananas, broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and peas.

The research has also found that:

Additional electrolytes may only be needed when exercising at high intensity

If you are performing sports at an elite level, working out in extremely hot conditions, or exercising for many hours, your may require additional electrolytes.

However, most people rarely or never exercise to this extent.

Sports drinks are loaded with sugar

Many sports drinks contain a large amount of glucose, sucrose, and artificial additives.

This is the real reason why you may experience a quick energy boost after drinking a sports drink.

Unfortunately, this can have a negative impact if you are exercising to lose weight as you will be consuming many additional calories from your drink.

Having a sports drink after a workout can completely negate the weight loss effect of a workout.

Sports drinks may be bad for your teeth

The high levels of sugar in sports drinks can contribute to tooth decay.

Sports drinks may give you too many electrolytes

Most people in the UK already already have too much sodium in their diet.

This puts them at a higher risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Because most sports drinks contain sodium, excessive consumption can increase this risk even more.

They may not improve sporting performance

One of the biggest selling point for sports drinks is that they will improve your performance on the sporting field.

However, numerous studies have found that athletes do not always experience a performance increase on the field after consuming sports drinks.

Signs that you may need more electrolytes

Here are a few warning signs that indicate you may need to ingest some electrolytes.

Muscle cramps

Cramps are usually a warning sign that you are suffering from either dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance

General dehydration symptoms

If you have been exercising at a very high intensity for over an hour or in hot conditions, you may begin to experience dehydration.

Some of the symptoms of dehydration include low volume urination or dark colour urine, extreme thirst, dry mouth, headache, dizziness, dry skin, and inability to produce tears.

If you believe you are severely dehydrated, consider reaching for a sports drink.


If you have been exercising at high intensity and are beginning to feel a bit groggy or heavily fatigued, it may be electrolyte imbalance and a sports drink may be useful.

Thanks for for reading What Are Electrolytes and Do You Need More?

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Stephen Coleclough
Stephen Coleclough

Stephen Coleclough is a personal trainer and online fitness/nutrition coach from the UK. He loves heavy squats, smashing PRs and bacon sandwiches. You can follow him on Twitter at ColecloughPT.

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