An electrolyte is a food item that contain an electrical charge when consumed. More accurately, these are molecules that will dissociate into positively and negatively charged ions making the solution itself electrically conductive. Electrolytes are highly important in our diet and all higher life forms require a complex balance of electrolytes. They aid in helping us to maintain hydration, to regulate muscle and nerve function, to improve acid-base balance and more, and many negative consequences exist if you do not get the correct balance of electrolytes in your diet.
For a quick example of how electrolytes work and why they are so important, consider muscle contractions. These work due to a chemical reaction that sends an electrical signal across the muscle cells. Muscles (and neurons) are activated through electrolyte activity between the extracellular fluid and intracellular fluid of those cells (the charge of the nerves versus the surrounding fluid). Electrolytes can enter and leave the cell membranes via protein structures in the plasma membrane which are fittingly called ‘ion channels’. So for muscle contraction to occur, it is crucial for there to be calcium, sodium and potassium (all positively charged electrolytes) and without these substances muscle contractions will be very weak or severe and uncontrollable.
Ions of Electrolytes
These then are three of the primary ions of electrolytes – potassium, sodium and calcium (all positively charged). The other primary ions include magnesium (also positively charged) and the negatively charged chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate.
There are many mechanisms in place in living things to help control this concentration of electrolytes. However it is also important to control your consumption of electrolytes in order to provide the body with the raw materials it needs in order to regulate this balance. Thus it is important to take in lots of electrolytes in fruits, vegetables, bread and milk. This is particularly important following exercise as you will lose a lot of electrolytes via sweat. By consuming additional electrolytes you will reduce cramping, improve stamina and reduce soreness.
Note: Rather than drinking lots of water following exercise to hydrate, you will be better served by consuming a little water and then a source of electrolytes such as an energy bar.
Choosing the Right Foods
It is important then to consume foods that are high in potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium. Sodium is just another word for salt and so adding some salt to a glass of water will help you to prevent cramps and will work as a sports drink. Likewise any salty processed foods can be a good source. Do not however that eating too much salt can also be bad for you and cause heart problems and more. Calcium meanwhile you can get from milk, as well as fortified cereals, beans, vegetables such as asparagus and fruits such as figs. Potassium meanwhile can be found in bananas, kale, tomatoes, oranges, melons and potatoes. Lastly magnesium can be found in vegetables, nuts, cereals beans and tomato paste.
Generally then to increase your consumption of electrolytes consume milk, bread, green vegetables, fruits, nuts and cereals.