Baseline Your Health Chapter 12

All Charged Up: Electrolytes & Vitality

Critical Solutions

Electrolytes are not just for athletes. The only reason that most Americans are even vaguely aware of the importance of electrolytes is through the marketing of sports drinks. “It’s neon blue-green, thirst-quenching and packed with electrolytes!” The details of what electrolytes actually are and what roles they play in our health are far more interesting than that.


What are electrolytes and why do I need them?

An electrolyte refers to a compound, such as sodium chloride (table salt), that dissociates into its separate components when dissolved. Electrolytes can be either negatively or positively charged (sodium is postive, chloride is negative). This electric potential is what allows electrolytes to do their jobs. READ MORE

Most of us have forgotten this from high school chemistry, but certain compounds in solution establish an electric potential (it might jar your memory to think about the difference between conductors, materials through which electricity can flow, and insulators, materials through which electricity cannot flow). Life relies on this sort of fundamental biological electricity for, among other things, the transportation of substances into and out of cells, the transmission of nerves impulses and the contraction of muscle fibers.

Electrolytes are also responsible for maintaining the body’s fluid balance, and they also help regulate pH, or the acid-base balance in our bodies. Our kidneys and lungs help the body maintain a slightly basic pH of between 7.35 and 7.45 for blood and tissues (distilled water is 7.0).

The main electrolytes in our body also have other jobs beyond keeping the power on; calcium is used to build bone and chloride is used by cells in the lining of the stomach to produce hydrochloric acid, a powerful acid that aids digestion. Other cells in the stomach lining produce biocarbonate, another electrolyte, to buffer the acid and prevent it from damaging the stomach lining. LESS


If we need electrolytes, why is sodium such a problem?

Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a role in many physiological processes, including nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Along with other electrolytes, sodium helps balance bodily fluids and facilitate the movement of materials across cell membranes. So if sodium is such a player in the body, why the fuss about eating too much salt? READ MORE

New York City is telling restaurants to lay off the salt and companies that make potato chips are scrambling to lower sodium in their snacks. Yes, tiny amounts of sodium are required for nerve cells to send impulses, for muscle fibers to contract and for cell membranes to ferry material into and out of cells. But the chronic intake of too much sodium can lead to serious health problems. High sodium levels cause the body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure, the force with which blood pushes against vessel walls. This additional force can damage the fine capillaries of the kidneys’ filtration units. Most people with high blood pressure have no symptoms, even if blood pressure readings reach dangerously high levels. High blood pressure usually develops over many years and can lead to serious problems, including heart attack and stroke. Excess sodium can also lead to calcium loss and osteoporosis.

Salt is so biologically important that our bodies inherently crave it and our tongues have sensitive receptors that tell the brain immediately when salt has entered the mouth. In ancient times salt was so valuable that it was used for money. Our modern word salary is derived from the Latin word salarium, which means “salt money” and referred to the allowance of salt given to Roman soldiers.

The problem these days, however, is that most medical experts believe we eat too much salt (according to government estimates, 90% of Americans consume more salt than they should). Reducing salt intake, according to the Institute of Medicine, could save 100,000 lives each year. The American Heart Association is also urging people to reduce their sodium intake. According to the AHA, salt consumption is more than twice the recommended upper limit, with nearly 80% of that consumption coming from packaged, processed and restaurant foods.

If you consume more salt than your kidneys can efficiently handle, your body retains water in order to maintain the right concentration of sodium in the bloodstream. This forces the heart to work harder—raising the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), heart attacks and strokes. Recent studies show that even kids experience a blood pressure rise when they eat too much salt.

How salt affects your blood pressure and health depends on many things, including your genes, age, race, and medical conditions. For a growing number of people, however, hypertension has become an especially serious threat. Kidneys are particularly vulnerable to hypertension, which can silently damage tiny capillaries as well as larger blood vessels. Damage to kidneys is usually gradual and often symptom-free, but also irreversible. LESS


Bananas, coconut water and other dietary electrolytes

Electrolytes have long been synonymous with brightly colored sports drinks, but in recent years, competitors like coconut water have been making inroads. The electrolyte such drinks usually tout is potassium and the comparison is usually made to having as much or more potassium than a banana (a particularly rich source of the mineral). READ MORE

Potassium plays an important role in maintaining cardiac electrical activity. Both too little potassium (hypokalemia) and too much (hyperkalemia) can result in potentially dangerous arrhythmias (irregular heart beat).

Because so many foods contain potassium, too little potassium is rarely caused by diet. All meats, including fish, are good sources of potassium. Vegetable sources include broccoli, peas, lima beans, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes; fruit sources include citrus, cantaloupe, bananas, kiwi, and apricots. Milk and yogurt and soy products, as well as nuts, are also excellent sources of potassium. In some cases, however, for example in patients on dialysis for kidney failure, potassium-rich foods should be avoided. Likewise, salt substitutes often contain potassium, as do many “low-salt” packaged foods. LESS

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.