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What are the Different Types of Electrolytes?

By B. Schreiber
Updated: May 17, 2024

All electrolytes are ions that carry either a positive or negative charge. Negatively charged ions are called anions, and positively charged ones are called cations. When cations and anions dissociate in water and become capable of carrying electric currents, they are known as electrolytes. They are necessary to maintain the body's fluid balance inside and outside of cells. Some of the important ones in the body include sodium, potassium, and calcium ions.

Ions are atoms that have become electrically charged by gaining or losing an electron. Atoms are often neutral because they have an equal number of protons and electrons. Electrons have a negative charge, and protons have a positive charge. If an atom loses an electron, it therefore has a greater number of protons and carries a positive charge. An atom that gains an electron has a greater number of electrons and gains a negative charge.

The sodium (NA) cation is most important in regulating extracellular fluid. The sodium ion can be represented as Na+ because it carries a positive charge. In the regulation of extracellular fluid balance, Na+ concentration plays a role in the sensation of thirst and in alerting the kidneys to retain or excrete water. An increase in the concentration of sodium ions generally means that the volume of water in the body has temporarily decreased, and water will be retained. Decreased concentrations trigger the loss of excess water in urine.

The chloride anion (Cl-) is also important in maintaining extracellular fluid balance. Sodium and chloride ions are attracted by their opposite charges, so they aren't easily separated. As Na+ ions are also heavily present in the extracellular fluid, they are both affected by similar mechanisms.

Potassium ions (K+) are important in regulating the activity of cells that are sensitive to electrical impulses. The concentration of potassium ions is closely regulated. Calcium ions (Ca2+) levels are also tightly controlled. Similar to potassium, nerve cells are also sensitive to changes in the levels of Ca2+.

Changes in the levels of body electrolytes can cause imbalances. At their most severe, these disruptions can cause changes in mental states and disturb normal heart rhythm. They are usually rare in healthy people because the levels are closely maintained through a number of different pathways. Possible causes of imbalances include injuries, such as serious burns, and cases of severe diarrhea. They are more likely to occur in people with certain health conditions, such as diabetes or alcoholism.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Jan 19, 2012

@Mammmood - Most people will not need electrolyte drinks, period. Unless they are working in extreme conditions for hours then they will get everything they need through regular water consumption and diet. They could even drink fruit juices or other beverages to get what they need.

Frankly, I think the electrolyte drinks are overhyped to the general public. I don’t believe it will help you if you don’t really need it – it’s just overkill in my opinion.

By Mammmood — On Jan 18, 2012

@MrMoody - I don’t know about the product you’re referring to but I think the science behind it is fairly simple.

I learned that ordinary table salt, when dissolved in water, would split up into its electrolyte components. Salt is sodium chloride so when it’s dissolved you’d have the sodium ions (Na*) and the chloride ions (Ci*).

I certainly don’t recommend drinking salt water when you’re thirsty but I’m just pointing out that electrolytes can be released quite easily.

By MrMoody — On Jan 17, 2012

I should point out that the commercial elecotrolyte drinks you see in grocery stores are not the best, in my opinion. These are okay for run of the mill situations like sweating it out after a workout or something like that.

However, there are other electrolyte products that are geared to people who work in industry. These drinks deliver strong electrolytes to the body and do a better job of keeping it in balance.

I saw one of these drinks at an industrial trade show once. A supplier had a packet of tablets, for example, that you could drop in water and instantly convert it to an electrolyte drink.

This would be useful for miners or construction workers for example. Suffice it to say, the science behind electrolytes is real but the really good stuff is sold to industry.

By SailorJerry — On Jan 17, 2012

@ElizaBennett - I don't disagree with you that these drinks are readily overused. But there are two times that electrolyte replacement should be considered: endurance workouts and stomach flu.

Endurance athletes will work out long enough and hard enough to through their bodies out of whack, and they can get nauseous and light-headed if they don't keep things in line. The sugar in the drinks is actually important, because glucose helps the body absorb electrolytes. When you are genuinely low on electrolytes, drinking a lot of water will actually make the problem worse by diluting your blood and stimulating your body to produce urine - more fluid loss. An endurance workout calls for either electrolyte drinks or, when you have finished, you can drink water along with eating the right sort of food (salty carbs, pretty much).

And, of course, vomiting and diarrhea can also deplete your body's electrolyte levels. Anyone who's puking that much should call their doctor! S/he can advise you on whether you need just water or special fluids like Gatorade or Pedialyte.

By ElizaBennett — On Jan 17, 2012

I think it's important to note that most healthy people are perfectly capable of maintaining their electrolyte balance without special electrolyte drinks. Yes, even when exercising.

One does need to drink plenty of *water,* of course. But watching a baseball game on a hot day is not an activity that requires Gatorade - though you will see it *everywhere* in the stands, not just on the field.

I'm being hard on these drinks because you see kids drinking them often, and they are usually heavily sweetened. I try really hard to keep my kids away from sweetened drinks and even juice. It's not just about the immediate problem of the sugar and the calories; it's that it helps them develop a taste for artificially sweet things instead of water and natural foods.

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