What is an electrolyte? Is this something that I should supplement?

Type in “what is an electrolyte” into your Google Search bar and you are sure to see answers like this one:

“An electrolyte is a substance that produces an electrically conducting solution when dissolved in a polar solvent, such as water. The dissolved electrolyte separates into cations and anions, which disperse uniformly through the solvent.”

If you don’t have a background in chemistry, you are probably feeling confused. So what is an electrolyte? Why is it important in the human body? And, is this something that you should supplement?

To state simply, an electrolyte is a type of nutrient that we get through our diet (food and beverages). Examples of electrolytes include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and bicarbonate.  Electrolytes are ‘charged particles,’ meaning that it is helpful in many of the chemical reactions in our body. Electrolytes are essential for normal functions in the body such as: muscle contraction and balancing the body’s pH levels. Due to their important roles in the human body, electrolyte imbalances can be very dangerous.

You may have heard of elite athletes drinking sports drinks with electrolytes, or have seen Pedialyte on the shelves of your local pharmacy for children who have diarrhea or vomiting - but what do these both have in common? Of course, they both contain electrolytes, but they are also useful when excessive fluid losses have occurred, whether through sweating, diarrhea, or vomiting.

If you have recently had surgery or have been unable to consume a balanced diet, you may be at risk for electrolyte imbalances. Certain health issues, such as chronic kidney disease, may also increase your risk for electrolyte imbalances. In these cases, electrolytes may be provided in order to manage any imbalances. If you are eating well and are not experiencing any excessive losses, electrolyte supplements are not warranted. In fact, supplementing with an electrolyte can be harmful if taken in excess or for unnecessary means.

Remember, it is always best to talk to your health care team regarding electrolytes if you ever have any concerns.

Blog post contributed by Alyssa Ramuscak, dietetic student, University of Western Ontario