It goes way beyond Gatorade.
If you’re anything like me, then your first interaction with the word “electrolyte” probably came from a sports beverage commercial. So while believing electrolytes are some mysterious elixir until your mid-20’s is embarrassing, it’s not uncommon.
“I don’t think people really know what they are,” says Jennifer Williams, a research scientist at Abbott Laboratories who specializes in nutrition, diabetes, and hydration.
Simply put, electrolytes are minerals that help your body work the way it should. They’re not hard to find, and there are plenty of vessels besides sports drinks. Sodium, chloride, and potassium are key electrolytes, while calcium and magnesium are lesser. Electrolytes are typically associated with rehydration, but they also keep the pH of your blood and all the other fluids exactly where they should be and help regulate the fluids throughout your body. Additionally, the brain uses electrolytes to signal messages to muscles and nerves throughout the body.
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You lose key electrolytes, specifically salt, when you sweat. “Even if you’ve only lost 1 to 3 percent of body fluids, you start feeling crummy because you start feeling dehydrated,” Williams says. And while we may not be sweating as much this time of the year, we’re still susceptible to dehydration. So while we’re holed up indoors with other people and more susceptible to illness, we really need to be cognizant of rehydrating and eating healthy.
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“It’s easy to become dehydrated if you have the respiratory flu,” Williams says, especially if you’re feverish or sweating. “Twenty percent of the water we ingest comes from food, and if you’re not eating well you may not be hydrated as well as you should be. On top of that, you may not feel like drinking because you feel so bad. It’s still key to hydrate so you can feel better fast.”
Aside from slowing down the recovery process, dehydration will cause new symptoms, such as headache, dizziness, fatigue, crankiness, and constipation. Without electrolytes, you’re not gonna feel as well and you’re not going to get around to getting better faster.
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Oral electrolyte solutions like Pedialyte rely on a process called sodium glucose cotransport; the sugar in the mixture pulls electrolytes into the body and rehydrates it. The proper amount of sugar is key: Too much sugar will upset your stomach and cause diarrhea, which leads to further dehydration, and that's the opposite of what you want when you have the flu.
There are a lot of beverages that can help you hydrate, like coconut water, milk, iced tea, and water. You can also eat electrolytes too--potassium is found in tomatoes, potatoes, avocados and melon; magnesium is in leafy greens and nuts; and calcium is found in dairy and leafy greens. These healthy foods will bring in those key fluids as well as nutrients that help you feel better.