Cedars-Sinai Blog

What are Electrolytes?

electrolytes, salt, sugar, sweat, sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, fluids, sports drinks

Electrolytes are essential minerals—like sodium, calcium, and potassium—that are vital to many key functions in the body.

They're often talked about in association with dehydration and mentioned in ads for sports drinks that promise to replace electrolytes lost through sweat.

But why does your body need them and what's the best way to get them? We asked Cedars-Sinai clinical dietitians Erika Der Sarkissian and Christina Fasulo.

"Sugar, salt, and water help your body absorb fluids, but a lot of sports drinks have too much sugar and not enough electrolytes to really help your body replenish the electrolytes it needs."

Q: Why are electrolytes important?

Erika Der Sarkissian: They do a lot in the body. They regulate muscle contractions and keep you hydrated. Electrolytes also help balance your pH levels (the measure of acidity and alkalinity).

Christina Fasulo: And they control nervous-system function.

Q: What are some signs of low electrolyte levels?

CF: Fatigue, headache, nausea, blood pressure changes, muscle cramps, low energy, and simply not feeling well.

Q: How do we lose electrolytes?

EDS: We mostly lose electrolytes through sweat and urine.

CF: Also vomiting and diarrhea.

Q: How do we get electrolytes in our bodies?

CF: For the average American, you can get all the electrolytes you need through a nutritious diet—especially when eating healthy, whole foods.

Q: Aren't sports drinks known for providing electrolytes?

EDS: Yes, but sports drinks can also have a lot of sugar and food coloring added, and they may not be necessary for a person who is not engaging in intense exercise (longer than 1 hour).

CF: Sugar, salts, and water help your body absorb fluids, but a lot of sports drinks have too much sugar and not enough electrolytes to really help your body replenish the electrolytes it needs.

After a workout, if you sweat heavily and you see a white chalk on your clothing, then you're likely losing a lot of salt. In those instances, or if you're exercising in a humid, hot area, or working out for an extended length of time, then you might benefit from an electrolyte-replacement drink. 

If you're doing an easy-to-moderate exercise for an hour, then you're fine drinking water.

People think that muscle cramps come from magnesium and potassium deficiencies, when most of the time it's from losing salt through sweat. Instead of just eating bananas when you're cramping, try getting sodium in your body. 

Q: Are there electrolytes when you get an IV?

EDS: Electrolytes can be added to IVs, which can help patients with alcohol abuse or other conditions that cause electrolyte deficiency. 

Q: How else does drinking alcohol affect our electrolyte levels?

EDS: Alcohol is dehydrating in multiple ways. 

It's a diuretic, which means it makes you pee more than usual. It does this by suppressing a hormone (called antidiuretic hormone or ADH) that usually helps your body hold onto water and electrolytes instead of losing them through urine. 

Also, you're probably not drinking water while you're out drinking alcohol, and you may lose even more water and electrolytes if you experience vomiting or diarrhea. 

Dehydration may also play a role in a lot of common hangover symptoms, like headache, fatigue, and weakness.

Drinking lots of water with electrolyte tablets or coconut water with salt added should help when you've overdone it at the bar.