Whether you're reaching for a bottle of Pedialyte after a brutal hangover, chugging a cup of Nuun during a running race, or spending a few more bucks on a bottle of Essentia Water before a workout, chances are at some point you've thought that electrolytes will solve all your problems. Common understanding of electrolytes begins and ends with a drink label or Gatorade commercial. And although sports drinks have been vilified for containing excessive amounts of added sugar, it turns out electrolytes are pretty important.
For starters, what even is an electrolyte? Basically, electrolytes are particles that help the body maintain its fluid balance, by "keeping fluids in the correct compartments," says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, CSSD, assistant professor in nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University. Translation: Electrolytes help to keep fluid inside of our blood vessels. In addition, electrolytes affect the acidity of your blood, your muscle function, and how waste and nutrients move between cells, according to MedlinePlus. Electrolytes technically are ions that carry an electric charge, hence the name, and they are found in your blood and other bodily fluids.
We get electrolytes by eating and drinking foods. You've probably heard of some electrolytes before, like sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, and magnesium, because they're in lots of foods and drinks, Dr. Pritchett says. "Sodium is found in table salt, chips, pretzels, soup, canned and packaged foods, sports drinks, and nuts," she says. "Potassium is found primarily in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, milk, strawberries, bananas, avocados, coconut water, and sports drinks." Since plain water does not contain electrolytes, some bottled water companies will add in electrolytes to give it some oomph.
On the flip side, we lose electrolytes when we sweat. "Most Americans consume enough sodium, so this is typically not an issue," Dr. Pritchett says. Provided that you aren't ill, "the only times when you'd need to worry are when you're doing strenuous exercise, working out in the heat, or exercising for a prolonged period of time, she says. Additionally, some people who are "salty sweaters," meaning their sweat contains more sodium than others, might need to pay more attention to the amount of electrolytes they consume, particularly during exercise, she says.
So, how can you tell if you are getting enough electrolytes? It's hard to say because everyone is different. If you are experiencing an electrolyte imbalance, the symptoms are similar to dehydration. "Typically when someone has prolonged diarrhea or vomiting we become more concerned about electrolyte imbalances," Dr. Pritchett says. But again, most people who eat adequate fruits and vegetables do not need to worry about their electrolyte intake.
At the end of the day, most of us really only need to worry about electrolytes when we're participating in a long, strenuous, or hot workout. (Or, if you happen to be dehydrated from drinking alcohol or vomiting from a stomach flu.) That said, if you're really craving an icy cold Gatorade while you're at your just chilling at your desk, or if you prefer buying water that has added electrolytes, that's fine — just don't expect it to turn you into a pro-athlete or anything.