Electrolyte Supplements Explained

Have a good workout? That drink could help replace your electrolytes, electrically-charged minerals needed for a number of functions in the body.
Have a good workout? That drink could help replace your electrolytes, electrically-charged minerals needed for a number of functions in the body.
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You've probably seen the commercials, the ones with people sweating colored water. What product could they be selling with colored sweat?

From sports drinks to high-tech powder mixes, supplements on the market are targeted to athletes needing to rejuvenate. Let's take a look at these electrolyte supplements.

But first, what are electrolytes? In simple terms, an electrolyte is a mineral that carries an electrical charge. In the human body, electrolytes are responsible for proper muscle function, ideal water balance and other really important processes [source: MedLine Plus].

If electrolytes are so important, how do you lose them? Primarily through sweating. This is why it's necessary for athletes of any skill level to make sure they have proper hydration that includes restoring lost electrolytes [source: MedLine Plus]. Though necessary, water alone won't cut it.

During physical exercise, a person's metabolism rate increases five to 15 times the body's resting rate, creating a lot of energy. Most of the energy is released as heat, which then triggers the body's cooling mechanism, perspiration [source: Sawka].

For those consuming a normal diet, electrolyte supplementation isn't necessary. But if you exercise or work in a hot environment, extra electrolytes are essential [source: Sawka]. Also, for people suffering diarrhea or vomiting, electrolyte supplements can help a person get better sooner.

Electrolyte supplements come in different forms, some more common than others, and even by prescription in extreme cases [source: Farlex].

Think back to those commercials on TV; they're selling a popular brand of sports drink. By far, sports drinks are the most common form of electrolyte supplement, found readily in supermarkets.

Some performance athletes prefer electrolyte supplements that come in capsule or powdered form, which allows them to control the supplement-to-water ratio, unlike premixed sports drinks [source: Farlex].

On the next page, we'll look at some of the most important electrolytes commonly found in these supplements.

Important Electrolytes to Look For

So we've established that electrolytes, electrically-charged minerals needed for a number of functions in the body, are lost through sweating. Electrolyte supplements serve to replace the needed balance, and we've briefly mentioned the different types available.

But what exactly are we aiming for? Whether sports drinks or powdered mix from the health food store, what are the key ingredients? Let's look at the most important electrolytes to the human body.

The primary electrolyte lost through sweating is sodium chloride [source: Sawka]. In fact, sodium and chloride separately are electrolytes, but together make up NaCl, or common salt. This is the same substance you use for table salt [source: Medline Plus]. Most all electrolyte supplements will have some form of absorbable sodium.

Another necessary electrolyte is potassium. In sports drinks, this is often added as monopotassium phosphate. Together with sodium, potassium is an essential part of a cellular function aptly named the sodium-potassium pump [source: Goodsell].

Ions, positively or negatively charged atoms, are moved back and forth between cellular walls through the sodium-potassium pump. The most important aspect of this process is the transmission of signals in the nervous system [source: Goodsell].

Found in a number of foods, from dairy products to leafy green vegetables, calcium is another essential electrolyte. It's also the most abundant mineral in the human body [source: UMMC].

Look for it as calcium carbonate, calcium citrate or coral calcium (sometimes found in high-end supplements). Calcium carbonate is the same substance found in basic antacids [source: UMMC].

One last electrolyte to look for is magnesium, a trace metal that's necessary for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the human body [source: ODS]. Magnesium is also lost through sweating and needs replacement like the others.

When checking the ingredient list, look for the mineral in the forms of magnesium carbonate, magnesium sulfate and magnesium oxide [source: ODS].

And those are the key electrolytes to look out for. Electrolyte supplements are a great way to replace minerals lost through sweating, allowing you to recuperate quicker and giving athletes that competitive advantage.

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Sources

  • Farlex's The Free Dictionary. "Electrolyte Supplements." 2012. (Aug. 25, 2012) http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Electrolyte+Supplements
  • Goodsell, David. "Sodium-Potassium Pump." RCSB Protein Data Bank. October 2009. (Aug. 25, 2012) http://www.rcsb.org/pdb/101/motm.do?momID=118
  • MedLine Plus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. "Chloride in diet." July 27, 2012. (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002417.htm
  • MedLine Plus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. "Electrolytes." Sept. 20, 2011. (Aug. 25, 2012) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002350.htm
  • Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. "Magnesium." July 13, 2009. (Aug. 27, 2012) http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/
  • Sawka, Michael N. and Scott J. Montain. "Fluid and electrolyte supplementation for exercise heat stress." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 72, no. 2. Pages 564-572. August 2000. (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.ajcn.org/content/72/2/564s.full
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. "Calcium." 2011. (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/calcium-000290.htm
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Ions in solutions (electrolytes)." 2010. (Aug. 25, 2012) http://chemed.chem.wisc.edu/chempaths/GenChem-Textbook/Ions-in-Solution-Electrolytes-598.html