Whenever you’re dehydrated, or experiencing the stomach flu or diarrhea, you hear people telling you the importance of restoring your body’s electrolytes. But what are electrolytes and where can you obtain them from?
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes, also known as minerals, are ions that occur in your body.
Okay… what’s an ion?
Chemistry time, folks!
Each chemical atom or molecule has a specific number of negatively charged particles, electrons, associated with it. When the number of electrons of the atom/molecule deviates from its usual number, it becomes charged. It can either be charged positively by losing electrons, or negatively by gaining electrons. Any charged atom or molecule is known as an ion.
Examples of minerals that occur in our bodies are:
- sodium (Na+)
- potassium (K+)
- chloride (Cl–)
- calcium (Ca2+)
- magnesium (Mg2+)
- bicarbonate (HCO3–)
- phosphate (PO42-)
- sulfate (SO42-)**
Why do we need electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential for our motor skills as well as other nerve impulses and muscle contractions (including the beating of your heart!). They also affect how much water is in your body, and the acidity of your blood. They are important because they carry electric charges.
Dehydration, which can result from the stomach flu, diarrhea and even profuse sweating, represents a state where a lot water has been lost. Electrolytes accompany this mass of water that leaves our systems, which is why we are told to replenish them. Without electrolytes, we are slower and weaker because they are so important to our biological processes.
People usually recommend drinking sports drinks to raise the level of electrolytes (and fluids) in your system when you are dehydrated, but this really does depend on why you are dehydrated! If you are dehydrated as a result of exercising, then a sports drink is fine. For cases where you are dehydrated as a result of the stomach flu or diarrhea, it’s suggested that you drink an oral electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte® in place of a sports drink.
Sports drinks have a high concentration of sugars, which will irritate you when you have a stomach flu and worsen diarrhea as it will draw more water into your bowels. Pedialyte doesn’t use sucrose, which is the sugar found in all Gatorade® products and most Powerade® products. Gatorade is strictly a sports drink because of its sucrose levels, but I’m going to hand it to Powerade because they’ve introduced Powerade Zero which has no sugar whatsoever, which makes it a great candidate for an electrolyte replenisher.
All of these drinks typically focus on sodium and potassium as electrolytes. Why are these two electrolytes so important? That’s a story for another day.