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4 essential electrolytes you can't get from water alone

4 essential electrolytes you can't get from water alone


Nothing's quite as satisfying as a big gulp of water after an intense gym session or 10k run. It helps rehydrate you, cools you off, and quenches your thirst. But is it enough?

During physical activity, your body loses electrolytes through sweat—electrolytes that water alone can't replenish. It's why casual gym rats and hardcore athletes both drink electrolyte-rich sports drinks. 

But what makes electrolytes so essential? Let's find out.


What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are essential minerals found in foods and fluids, with our bodies even producing a few naturally. We dissolve electrolytes in our bodily fluids—blood, sweat, urine—which turns them into positively or negatively charged ions. 

Common electrolytes include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Bicarbonate
  • Calcium
  • Phosphate

These electrolytes are vital for your body to carry out normal body processes, like regulating your pH levels, maintaining fluid balances, contracting muscles, and conducting nerve impulses that allow your cells to communicate.


4 essential electrolytes

Sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride all play a role in proper body functioning—from regulating blood pressure to promoting healthy digestion. While many contribute to the same processes, each has unique properties that help everything run smoothly.

1. Sodium

Found in extracellular fluid (ECF), sodium is pivotal in maintaining ECF volume and regulating blood pressure. Because sodium influences water movement across cell membranes, osmotic pressure changes when sodium levels do. As the saying goes, "Where sodium goes, water flows."

These sodium-induced changes affect how water moves between intra- and extracellular compartments, like blood. The result? An increase or decrease in plasma volume (part of ECF) and blood volume that can raise or lower your blood pressure. 

2. Potassium

Potassium and sodium work closely together to maintain fluid volume in and out of your cells. Potassium, found largely in intracellular fluid (ICF), is one of the most abundant minerals in your body. 

The potassium concentration in ICF is nearly 30 times higher than outside your cells. This imbalance forms an electrochemical gradient that sodium and potassium work together to maintain. That gradient is responsible for muscle contractions. 

When your potassium levels drop, your muscles produce weaker contractions, but you may also experience muscle fatigue or severe muscle cramps.

3. Magnesium

Every cell in your body has magnesium, but nearly 60% lives in your bones, with the rest found in fluids, tissues, and muscles. Magnesium is a helper molecule that contributes to over 400 enzymatic reactions throughout your body, including:

  • Converting food into energy
  • Regulating muscle and nerve functions
  • Contracting muscles
  • Regulating blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Building proteins

Notice how magnesium plays a role in some of the same processes potassium and sodium drive? Many of your body's electrolytes work together to make sure your body runs how it should.

One of those functions is producing and metabolizing adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—your body's primary energy source.

4. Chloride

Chloride is a negatively charged ion found in both intra- and extracellular fluids and is the second-most abundant in your body. Like other electrons, chloride plays a part in many bodily functions, like maintaining your acid-base (pH) balance, aiding in digestion, and water movement between fluid compartments.

It's also a component of stomach acid—hydrochloric acid (HCl). HCl jumpstarts the digestive process in your stomach by activating gastric enzymes. Chloride is integral to proper digestion.


Why balanced electrolytes are essential

Simply put, electrolytes keep your body in balance—in homeostasis. Having balanced electrolytes helps with chemical reactions and maintaining proper hydration and intra- and extracellular fluids that protect cellular function. But, when in balance, electrolytes also:

  • Balance your pH levels
  • Transport nutrients into your cells
  • Remove waste from your cells
  • Support muscle function and the nervous system
  • Regulate your blood pressure

In short, electrolytes are essential for optimal body functioning. And it's why rehydration during and after workouts is so crucial. But water isn't enough. Your body needs electrolytes to replenish lost nutrients (and electrolytes lost through sweat) to reestablish a healthy balance.