You've probably heard the term tossed around, and you've probably figured out that it's a bad idea to run out of them. But what exactly is an electrolyte? What does it do?

Technically, an electrolyte is a compound which produces ions when dissolved in a solution such as water. Because these ions will have either a positive or negative electrical charge, we refer to these compounds as electrolytes.

Those who use the term in the context of health and fitness are usually referring to a specific group of minerals that can be found in the body's fluids, including your blood, sweat, and urine. These special minerals include sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, and phosphate.

Strange as it sounds, many of the body's functions actually depend on electricity. So, this group of charged materials is needed to regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, help blood to clot, move nutrients into your cells and waste products out, and help rebuild damaged tissue.

Sodium and potassium in particular work together to ensure the right amount of water gets into and out of your cells by regulating osmosis, while calcium and magnesium help enable your muscles to contract.

You get most of your electrolytes from food, especially from fruits and vegetables. Foods rich in electrolytes include spinach, turkey, beans, avocados, oranges, and strawberries. Some electrolytes, like bicarbonate, can also be produced by the body.

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How much of any electrolyte you need depends on how much fluid you use; you shouldn't need to worry about replenishing your electrolytes if you plan on sitting around indoors all day. However, if you're losing a lot of fluids through exercise, replacing your electrolytes is just as important as getting enough water is. Be especially careful if you plan on exercising in extreme heat or for 2 hours or more.

If your level of certain electrolytes dips too low or too high, you may experience symptoms including irregular heartbeat, weakness, convulsions, dizziness, vomiting, loss of consciousness, numbness, and confusion. In extreme cases, an electrolyte imbalance can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.

You may also need to replace your electrolytes if you lose a lot of fluid through diarrhea or vomiting. Other potential causes of electrolyte imbalances are kidney disease, diuretic use, eating disorders, severe burns, overly acidic blood, severe dehydration, poor diet, certain medications, or plain old old-age.

If your level of an electrolyte is only a little too low or high, you will probably be able to recover just by replacing lost nutrients or drinking more water to restore balance. But if your condition is more severe, you may need to be hospitalized and monitored.

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Since so much of it is lost in sweat, sodium is the electrolyte that is most easily depleted under physical stress, a condition called hyponatremia. Sports drinks are a good way to replenish your electrolytes as well as stay hydrated; but the problem with those is that most of them also contain either sugar or artificial sweeteners.

If you're looking for a less sugary way to replace the salt you may lose during intense exercise, you could try packing salty food or salt tablets instead of a Gatorade. But if you find yourself experiencing symptoms of low electrolytes in a situation where only a sports drink is available, don't hesitate to take it! Staying healthy should always come first.

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