What’s the Deal With Electrolytes, Anyway?

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Photo by: adamkaz

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You know how sports drinks – your Gatorades and your PowerAde, and their curiously colorful ilk – are always going on about all the electrolytes they’ll help you recover after a workout? While some people debate whether that’s true, others wonder what an electrolyte even is.

Because we’ve been hearing about them forever, we may be afraid to ask. Now we don’t have to be. The American Chemical Society and PBS Digital Studios have teamed up on a video that fills us all in.

According to the video, electrolytes are nutrients that we usually take in through the foods we eat. While regular old table salt (sodium chloride) is the most common electrolyte in our bodies, others include potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphate.

These electrolytes – positive and negative ions – control the flow of water and nerve impulses in our bodies. We need the proper balance of electrolytes to maintain our health at a cellular level and keep our hearts, lungs and brains functioning. We lose electrolytes when we sweat, and if we lose too many, our bodies can run into major problems performing basic physiological functions like maintaining blood pressure, regular heartbeat, etc.

However, even though electrolytes are key, sports drinks may not be the best way for most of us to replenish electrolytes after a regular workout, the video warns. That is, in part, because most of us can safely rely on the electrolytes we take in from the foods we eat…and also because sports drinks can be seriously sugary. (So much for all that work you did to burn calories!) Good food sources of sodium include canned tuna, salted nuts and pickles, while tomatoes, bananas, potatoes and yogurt are good sources of potassium.

“If you’re working out for an hour or so, water will keep you hydrated and you probably don’t need those extra electrolytes or sugars,” the ACS suggests in the video.

However, in cases where you’re doing serious exercise for an extended period of time – like, say, running a marathon – sports drinks, and the electrolytes they promise, may be worth the calories, the ACS allows. No need to sweat the sugar.

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Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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