Electrolytes are the charged substances that result when a salt is dissolved in solution. These positive and negatively charged ions can conduct electricity, and are thus referred to as “electrolytes.” For instance, common table salt is sodium chloride (NaCl). When dissolved in water (or blood), it separates into a positively charged sodium ion (Na+) and a negatively charged chloride ion (Cl-). Important electrolytes for physiological functions in humans include sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), magnesium (Mg2+), and chloride (Cl-).
As a group, these electrolytes are involved in countless activities essential for life, including energy production, nerve transmission, muscle contractions, pH balance, fluid balance, and more. The human body, the amazing self-regulating organism that it is, has a number of mechanisms in place to maintain proper electrolyte balance.
However, human beings, the amazing boundary-pushers that we are, have put ourselves in a variety of situations that may threaten this balance—extreme environments, heavy physical activity, and inadequate diets can all contribute to situations in which humans have to give their normally self-regulating bodies a helping hand. In other words, under average conditions, healthy individuals will meet their electrolyte requirements over the course of a normal day by eating and drinking.
But when conditions promote excessive sweating and increased metabolic activity, especially those who have marginal electrolyte intake may place themselves at risk for deficiency. Environmental factors, such as a sharp decrease in the amount of minerals people now consume in their drinking water or eat in their foods, especially when too much sodium is consumed, can move more people into an electrolyte imbalance.