We've all heard boastful claims by sports drink manufacturers regarding their inclusion of electrolytes into their product. With all of their excited claims, electrolytes must be amazing and helpful to the human body, right? But what exactly are electrolytes?
The basic definition is that they are a substance in your body that contain free flowing ions, making the material more electrically conducive. They are normally formed when salt is placed into a solvent such as water and undergo a process known as solvation.
In The Human Body
Electrolytes are actually responsible for quite a bit in the human body. They aide heavily in nerve and muscle function. Both muscle tissue and neurons are considered electric tissues of the body and their tendency to increase electrical conduction helps immensely in the function of these systems. Additionally, electrolytes also play a very large part in hydration.
Because of those benefits it's no surprise that sports drinks, primarily used for athletic function, would carry them. These electrolyte heavy drinks containing high sodium help replenish water and electrolyte levels in the body after dehydration occurs. Athletes exercising in extreme conditions who do not consume electrolytes risk dehydration. Heavy alcohol consumption, diarrhea, vomiting, and starvation can also cause dehydration.
Sources of Electrolytes
One can find electrolytes in many foods and drinks they already consume. In addition to sports drinks, they're found heavily concentrated in fruit juices, potatoes, avocados, tomato soup, and an array of other consumables. You can even make your own electrolyte drink at home with simple household ingredients. Water, baking soda, sugar, and salt (or potassium) will leave you with a not-so-delicious drink to pump your electrolytes up. If you're in a hard spot, it's better than nothing though!
When You Really Need Them
There are many situations where an electrolyte rich drink can make you feel better if you're ill and reverse some of the negative effects associated with your illness. For example, the fatigue one feels after heavy exercise can be curbed to a degree by drinking a sports drink. Additionally, when children and infants are sick with diarrhea and/or vomiting, an electrolyte drink should be administered to replenish the electrolytes they lost during their purging. Such drinks as pedialyte are specialized to do this without overloading the child with sugar and bad carbohydrates. That being said, doctors do not recommend giving a sugary sports to drink to an infant child!
As an adult, you should also look for alternatives to sweet sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade. The sugar they contain are empty calories and can quickly increase your waistline. If you're interested more about what constitutes good and bad calories, you can read my dietary article.