Electrolytes, why are they so important? We hear it all the time. Drink this, it’s good for you, it has electrolytes; or rehydrate with electrolytes. But most of us just believe that they are good because it’s a generally accepted opinion and a trendy term. I decided to shine some light on the subject to present a clearer picture.
The fact is that electrolytes present one of the most complex subjects of physiology. The reason for this is that electrolytes are controlled by multiple hormones and one of the most complex organs in our body, the kidneys.
So what are these magical goodies? They are simply atoms or molecules with an extra electric charge. Being in their solid form they are salts, meaning that they are composed of two parts joined together and having a neutral charge. However, when placed in a solvent like water, the interaction with water molecules dissociates the two parts, with one part having a positive electric charge and another having a negative charge. The electric charge simply means that there is an excess or a deficiency of electrons (each having one negative electric charge). A prime example of this is table salt (NaCl) being dissolved in water to form sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-)
The primary electrolytes in our body are sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca+2), magnesium (Mg+2), chloride (Cl-), hydrogen phosphate (HPO4-2; meaning this molecule has a hydrogen atom, a phosphate atom, four oxygen atoms and two negative electric charges), and hydrogen carbonate (HCO-3).
In simple terms, why are they so important? First, all muscle and nerves in our body work by having these electrolytes pass inwards or outwards through their cell membranes. Without proper levels of electrolytes our nerves and muscles would simply stop working. The consequence would be loss of consciousness and a stop to breathing and proper functioning of the heart. In other words, total demise. This can actually happen with severe dehydration, when water from the body is excessively lost along with electrolytes. Examples of perpetrators are severe diarrhea, vomiting, excessive exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, excessive sweating or being stranded in a dessert while doing a marathon (a little humor). Needless to say, it can happen.
The other very important role of electrolytes is to control the amount of water that is within all the cells in our body (meaning all the cells of all of our organs), the amount of water outside of the cells (this space is called interstitial fluid), and the amount of water that is within our arteries and veins (i.e. the circulatory system).
When we are dehydrated, due to any of the reasons listed above, we lose more water than electrolytes. This makes the fluid in the interstitial space and the circulatory system more concentrated (meaning it has a higher concentration of electrolytes than water; although some electrolytes were lost). The consequence of this is that water rushes out of cells to the interstitial space and the circulatory system because water always flows where there is a higher concentration of electrolytes (a process called osmosis). The consequence is that the cells shrink and loose their normal functionality. This happens because the membrane of each cell is a very complex structure and plays a role which is essential for cell functionality (there are many enzymes, channels, and receptors on each cell membrane). When the membrane shrinks it deforms and loses its functionality. The cells stop working normally and this affects or whole body. We feel toxic, cloudy, lethargic, and so on. If this state continues the functionality of organs, including the brain, declines further and further eventually to the point of total shutdown. It’s a range of symptoms from feeling slightly dehydrated to total demise.
Now, if we were to rehydrate just with water what would happen? We would dilute the interstitial fluid even more than in its normal state (remember that some electrolytes were lost during dehydration) and water would rush into the cells (now very concentrated with electrolytes due to water flowing out of them previously). The consequence? The cells would swell excessively and the membranes would again be deformed. This time being stretched too much and again normal functionality of the membrane would be lost. Of course the kidneys try to compensate for such changes, to a large extent, by either secreting or conserving water or electrolytes. But even they are not perfect and their compensation can be overwhelmed by the extent of dehydration.
This is why rehydrating with water mixed with electrolytes is so important. It replenishes the electrolytes lost during the state of dehydration. It also makes sure that the gradient of electrolytes inside and outside of cells is normal so that cells do not shrink or swell excessively.
They are also absolutely essential for contracting muscles and for conducting electrical impulses by nerves. They do this by their very nature of having electrical charges and being able to pass through channels in cell membranes (including muscle cells and nerve cells).
Finally the same principle applies to the circulatory system. Excessive dehydration means more water is lost in comparison to electrolytes. This means the fluid volume in arteries drops, which drops the blood pressure. This means that less vital oxygen and nutrients are being delivered to organs (not very good). Rehydrate without electrolytes and the blood pressure goes up temporarily (more fluid in arteries) but the new water rushes out of the arteries to fill up the cells of all organs (remember they were very much concentrated with electrolytes due to previous dehydration) and blood pressure drops again. Rehydrate with electrolytes and none of these problems occur and the body is happy.
Rehydrating with the best electrolytes from Emergen-C simply means we are taking the heavy burden off the kidneys to do all the work for us. This is especially true considering that they have a tough job everyday as is.
I know this is a lot to swallow at once, but keep in mind that any physiology text book chapter on electrolytes will keep you occupied for a week, if not longer!
All the best to you all and have a wonderful weekend.