You've probably seen those ads for sports drinks that claim to offer better hydration than water during or after an intense workout. The reason, they say, is that sports drinks replenish electrolytes; water does not. It turns out, there is truth in advertising – electrolytes are a health essential. But what exactly are they and what are the differences when comparing electrolytes vs nonelectrolytes.
You're probably familiar with most or all of the electrolytes, even if you didn't necessarily know they were electrolytes:
These electrically-charged minerals help regulate everything from hydration (the amount of water in your body), to your nervous system to muscle function — including the most important muscle of all: the heart.
On the other hand, nonelectrolytes are compounds that do not ionize at all in solution1. As a result, solutions containing nonelectrolytes will not conduct electricity. A common example of a nonelectrolyte is glucose. Glucose (sugar) readily dissolves in water, but because it does not dissociate into ions in solution, it is considered a nonelectrolyte; solutions containing glucose do not, therefore, conduct electricity.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE ELECTROLYTES
Electrolytes are chemical compounds that can break down into ions when dissolved in water. These ions can conduct electricity through this aqueous solution. In order to break down into its ions, the electrolyte should be an ionic compound. Ionic compounds are made out of cations and anions.
In simple words, once electrolytes (think calcium, potassium, magnesium, and plain old table salt) are in our bodies, they dissolve into positive and negative charges. These charges have two main functions: regulating the flow of water in and out of cells and sparking nerve impulses.
There are two types of electrolytes: strong and weak electrolytes. Strong electrolytes completely ionize into its ions. There are no neutral molecules in the aqueous solution of a strong electrolyte. Weak electrolytes do not completely ionize into its ions. Therefore, there are also some neutral molecules present in the solution.
A substance that will dissociate into ions in solution acquires the capacity to conduct electricity. As mentioned earlier, sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate are the main examples of electrolytes.2
WHAT DO ELECTROLYTES DO
Sodium and potassium work together to maintain the correct balance of fluids inside and outside of your cells, ensuring that your cells neither shrivel up like raisins nor explode like over-filled water balloons. Calcium and magnesium are important for building strong bones.
More importantly, these electrically charged minerals help to stimulate contractions in the heart and other muscles, and also help maintain proper pH, keeping your blood from becoming too acidic or too alkaline.
Sports drink Gatorade and Purple Tree's Hydration Drops advertise themselves as electrolyte-replenishers because they contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other ions.
When humans sweat, we lose ions necessary for vital bodily functions; to replenish them, we need to consume more ions, often in the form of an electrolyte solution. In the human body, electrolytes have many uses, including helping neurons conduct electrical impulses.
In oral rehydration therapy, electrolyte drinks containing a mixture with sodium and potassium salts replenish the body's water and electrolyte concentrations after dehydration caused by exercise3, excessive alcohol consumption, diaphoresis (heavy sweating), diarrhea, vomiting, intoxication or starvation. Athletes exercising in extreme conditions (for three or more hours continuously, like marathon or triathlon) who do not consume electrolytes risk dehydration (or hyponatremia).
WHAT ARE NON-ELECTROLYTES
Nonelectrolytes are chemical compounds whose aqueous solutions cannot conduct electricity through the solution. This type of compound does not exist in ionic form. Most nonelectrolytes are covalent compounds. When dissolved in water, these compounds do not form ions at all.
Most carbon compounds such as hydrocarbons are nonelectrolytes because they cannot dissolve in water. Some compounds such as glucose can dissolve in water, but do not ionize. An aqueous solution of glucose is composed of glucose molecules.
Therefore, ethanol is a nonelectrolyte because it does not ionize when dissolved in water. Sugar is another example of a nonelectrolyte. Sugar dissolves in water yet retains its chemical identity.
Bottom line: Both strong and weak electrolytes are substances that become conductors of electricity when dissolved in water. Nonelectrolytes are substances that don’t conduct electricity when in these states.
HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR ELECTROLYTES
Eat your electrolytes. Make these essential electrolytes part of your daily diet (food or supplements): Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Potassium.
Go easy on the salt. Although sodium is a vital electrolyte, your body doesn't need a lot — just 1 teaspoon daily. Too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure and other health problems.
Drink enough water. Don't wait until you become dehydrated to drink fluids; keep a water bottle with you and drink small amounts throughout the day.
Replenish electrolytes after exercise. If you do a long or heavy workout, it's important to replace the potassium, magnesium and/or sodium that can be depleted. Even if you don't sweat a lot, you lose electrolytes when you breathe rapidly. So, sweaty or not, opt for a drink with electrolytes after any vigorous workout. You can be sure that solutions of electrolytes will always be the best go-to next to water.
Push the electrolytes when you’re sick. When you're vomiting, have diarrhea or are feverish, you rapidly lose fluids and electrolytes. Children and seniors, especially, can get severely dehydrated very fast. Oral rehydration solutions like Purple Tree's Hydration Drops — which contain the right mixture of salt, potassium and other minerals — are a good way to replenish those vital fluids.
Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps