What do neurons firing, the heart pumping, your blood circulating, and a bicep flexing have in common? All these systems depend on a short list of charged minerals to function.
You can probably guess which minerals we’re talking about: electrolytes.
Hydration gets a lot of attention because you REALLY notice when your energy tanks, your muscles cramp, or your brain fogs up (all symptoms of improper electrolyte balance). In fact, sometimes these symptoms are made worse from improper hydration tactics—like drinking too much water or neglecting sodium. But quietly, imperceptibly, even when you feel nothing, electrolytes are supporting the processes that keep you alive. They’re getting water in your body to the right places and allowing electrochemical signals to be sent between cells,driving the energy production in your cells. They’re sustaining life.
We’ll dig into the science in a bit but first, we need to cover some definitions.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium (to name a few) that play a crucial role in multiple bodily functions and they aren’t called electro-lytes by accident. These minerals literally conduct electrical charges in your body. Pretty cool, right?
They support an impressive number of functions in the human body including:
- Regulating energy metabolism
- Conducting electricity to power the nervous system
- Producing and regulating hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, aldosterone, and antidiuretic hormone
- Maintaining fluid balance
- Regulating muscle contraction (including heartbeat)
- Promoting restful sleep
- And much more
The ebb and flow of electrolytes in the human body is complex, but to simplify: You use electrolytes as a part of every basic human function, especially when your metabolic rate increases like it does through exercise or stress. We replace them through diet and supplementation.
Generally, the kidneys keep a tight leash on blood electrolyte levels. For example, if you consume too much salt, your kidneys will get the message and pee out the excess minerals, and balance is restored. Nonetheless, your kidneys can’t always maintain balance if you are consuming too little of any electrolyte. Drinking too much water and eating a diet lower in minerals—to name two situations—can result in electrolyte imbalances.
Some of the less severe symptoms of electrolyte deficiency can include the following:
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle weakness
- Extreme lethargy
- Anxiety or depression
Those symptoms alone aren’t great but prolonged significant deficiencies can actually potentially lead to brain damage, osteoporosis, immunosuppression, and even death (in extreme hyponatremic cases). Promise we aren’t just saying that to scare you! Electrolyte deficiency can be scary stuff.
What Have Electrolytes Done for You Lately?
Now that we’ve touched on the science, let’s get into the broader effects of electrolytes.
#1: ENERGY LEVELS
Electrolytes don’t contain stored energy. Without electrolytes, however, you couldn’t turn stored energy into usable energy. That’s because electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium support the complex reactions that produce ATP. Here are a few examples:
- Calcium. Calcium activates a number of enzymes—like pyruvate dehydrogenase phosphatase—crucial for the Krebs cycle which is a method of producing energy from the byproducts of glucose and fatty acids in the mitochondria..
- Potassium channels. Rising ATP levels stimulate ATP-sensitive potassium channels. (Say that ten times fast). This, in turn, provokes insulin secretion, a hormone that helps you store energy as glycogen or body fat. In other words, how you use energy is dependent on potassium channels.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is a cofactor in many reactions along the ATP production chain. Specifically, magnesium is required to make the MgATP2 complex, a cofactor that activates enzymes needed to synthesize ATP. Magnesium also regulates both potassium and calcium channels that influence energy metabolism.
Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz on this stuff. The bottom line is that you need these electrolytes to make and have ENERGY.
In addition, sodium and potassium structure the pumps that allow nerve impulses to fire. Do you think this affects your subjective energy? You better believe it does.
#2: PHYSICAL FUNCTION
Athletes can lose up to 7-10 grams of sodium per day exercising in the heat. If that sodium isn’t replaced, performance will suffer. Often only fluids are replaced. Unfortunately, this dilutes blood sodium levels leading to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia. Replacing the lost electrolytes in addition to fluid intake is critical.
Electrolytes are not just needed in and around athletics. Simply metabolizing our food, firing neurons in conversation, work, or play, using muscles while sitting, hand-eye coordination in typing, and navigating digital worlds all require electrolytes for proper motor functioning and simple cognition.
#3: HEART HEALTH
Sodium-potassium pumps keep your heart beating. Enough said.
Just kidding, we’ll say more. For instance, deficiencies in sodium, potassium, and magnesium have each been linked to poor heart health outcomes. When it comes to heart health, sodium is the most controversial electrolyte. According to a 2011 JAMA study, the sweet spot for heart health outcomes is around 5 grams of sodium per day, however the dated government recommendations continue to recommend we keep it under 2.3 daily grams.
Potassium is less controversial. Inadequate potassium is an obvious cause of high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. High or low potassium levels can also cause dangerous arrhythmias.
#4: BRAIN HEALTH
For brain cells (neurons) to fire, you need adequate sodium and potassium in and around the cell. We don’t know about you, but we like when our neurons can fire. The more efficient your neurons are at firing, the better your performance in whatever you do— think running in a fast pace race or quickly tapping buttons on a keyboard.
Sodium is especially critical for brain health. If sodium levels drop too low, the brain swells with water and a range of neurological symptoms ensue, from fatigue, to brain fog, to even death (in extreme cases).
Again, we do mean to scare you, as levels need to drop pretty low, but hopefully you are getting the message of how important it is to have a balanced level of electrolytes in your body.
Closely connected to brain health, consider the following links between electrolytes and mental health:
- Low serum sodium is well-documented to cause mood swings.
- When rats are deprived of sodium, they become depressed.
- Magnesium supplementation appears to help with both anxiety and depression.
#6: IMMUNE HEALTH
Both sodium and potassium help maintain the electrical charge inside and outside cells. This membrane potential not only allows nerve impulses to fire, but also allows for the transmission of signals that direct your immune system.
Potassium may also cool unnecessary immune activity (aka, chronic inflammation) by inhibiting a pathway called the NLRC4 inflammasome.
#7: HORMONAL HEALTH
The relationship between electrolytes and hormones is a vast, largely unexplored universe. Here are a few examples of how they interrelate:
- Low sodium status increases stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
- Sodium deficiency provokes the release of aldosterone, a hormone that raises blood pressure.
- Low thyroid hormones have been linked to low sodium and potassium levels.
Electrolytes can make a big difference in how you feel. If you’re experiencing headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, low-energy, or even flu-like symptoms—you might simply be low on electrolytes. Sodium, potassium, and magnesium are the three electrolytes folks tend to be most deficient in.
Hopefully now when you think of electrolytes, more comes to mind than sugary sports drinks. Electrolytes are quite literally at the foundation of energy production in the body, so maintaining the right levels is crucial. While you can restore electrolytes through diet, you likely need reinforcements from time to time. That’s why we included electrolytes in Patch—to help provide the healthy hydration you need to nourish mental well-being.