The Importance of Maintaining Electrolyte Balance

An electrolyte is any electrically conducive chemical substance within the body.

There are five important electrolytes in the body:

  • sodium
  • chloride
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • magnesium

Electrolytes are vital in maintaining homeostasis in the body, helping to regulate myocardial and neurological functionality, oxygen, acid-base balance and fluid balance.

They are used by cells to maintain voltage across their cell membranes and to carry electrical impulses across to other cells; these electrical impulses include nerve impulses and muscle contractions.  The kidneys work to keep electrolyte concentrations in the blood constant.

Electrolyte Imbalance

There are a number of ways in which electrolyte imbalance can occur, these include excessive ingestion, diminished ingestion, diminished elimination of an electrolyte and excessive elimination of an electrolyte.  Electrolyte disturbances are most commonly caused by renal failure.

Abnormal levels of sodium, potassium and calcium are all contributors to electrolyte disturbance. Less common causes are laxative abuse, diarrhea and vomiting. Those suffering bulimia or anorexia are at high risk of electrolyte imbalance due to abnormal ingestion and dehydration.

Electrolyte imbalance can result in:

  • diarrhea and sweating
  • high fever
  • blood pressure changes
  • muscle spasms, disorders of the nervous system and changes in blood pressure result from irregular levels of magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphate, bicarbonate or potassium

Exercise and Electrolytes

With the correct body water balance, the electrolytes separate into positive and negative ions. When the body loses water or becomes dehydrated an electrolyte imbalance starts to occur. During heavy exercise, sodium and potassium electrolytes in particular are lost through sweating.  To ensure constant electrolyte concentrations in the body, fluids must be regularly consumed.

To avoid an electrolyte imbalance which can cause lethargy and muscle twitching, athletes consume electrolyte solution drinks to make sure the electrolyte balance is maintained during and after exercise – this contributes to achieving optimum performance.

Electrolyte Sports Drinks

There are three types of sport drink which can be used to maintain a healthy electrolyte balance in the body at different stages of exercise and levels of endurance.

Hypotonic Drinks

Hypotonic drinks are dilute carbohydrate solutions rapidly absorbed by the body. Hypotonic drinks start the rehydration process and replenish carbohydrate energy reserves.

Isotonic Drinks

Isotonic Drinks are best used late on in the recovery process. They boost energy and encourage fluid uptake in the latter stages of rehydration. Isotonic drinks have a similar electrolyte composition to body fluid.

Hypertonic Drinks

Hypertonic drinks have a higher carbohydrate electrolyte concentration that the body’s own fluid and are best used during heavy periods of training to boost energy. Use a hypertonic drink when you anticipate high energy expenditure.

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