3.5.1. Fluid and Electrolyte Balance

Fluid and Electrolyte Balance

Maintaining the right level of water in your body is crucial to survival, as either too little or too much water in your body will result in less-than-optimal functioning. One mechanism to help ensure the body maintains water balance is thirst. Thirst is the result of your body’s physiology telling your brain to initiate the thought to take a drink. Sensory proteins detect when your mouth is dry, your blood volume too low, or blood electrolyte concentrations too high and send signals to the brain stimulating the conscious feeling to drink. In the summer of 1965, the assistant football coach of the University of Florida Gators requested scientists affiliated with the university study why the withering heat of Florida caused so many heat-related illnesses in football players and provide a solution to increase athletic performance and recovery post-training or game. The discovery was that inadequate replenishment of fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes was the reason for the “wilting” of their football players. Based on their research, the scientists concocted a drink for the football players containing water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes and called it “Gatorade.” In the next football season the Gators were nine and two and won the Orange Bowl. The Gators’ success launched the sports-drink industry, which is now a multibillion-dollar industry that is still dominated by Gatorade. Excess consumption of sugary soft drinks is common and has been scientifically proven to increase the risk for dental caries, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. In addition to sugary soft drinks, beverages containing added sugars include fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and sweetened bottled waters. Sports drinks are designed to rehydrate the body after excessive fluid depletion, a problem for high-intensity athletes performing prolonged workouts in hot, humid climates. Electrolytes in particular promote normal rehydration to prevent fatigue during physical exertion. Are they a good choice for achieving the recommended fluid intake? Are they performance and endurance enhancers like they claim? Who should drink them?Typically, eight ounces of a sports drink provides extra calories and carbohydrate, mostly in the form of simple sugars. Sodium and potassium are the most commonly included electrolytes in sports drinks, with the levels of these in sports drinks being highly variable. The American College of Sports Medicine says a sports drink should contain 125 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces as it is helpful in replenishing some of the sodium lost in sweat and promotes fluid uptake in the small intestine, improving hydration. Health agencies and dieticians recommend water for most active people as sports drinks are suited to high-energy performance. In this chapter we will discuss the importance and functions of fluid and electrolyte balance in the human body, the consequences of getting too much or too little of water and electrolytes, the best dietary sources of these nutrients, and healthier beverage choices.

Overview of Fluid and Electrolyte Balance

Water is made up of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom (Figure “The Water Molecule”). Adult males typically are composed of about 60 percent water and females are about 55 percent water. (This gender difference reflects the differences in body-fat content, since body fat is practically water-free. This also means that if a person gains weight in the form of fat the percentage of total body water content declines.) As we age, total body water content also diminishes so that by the time we are in our eighties the percent of water in our bodies has decreased to around 45 percent. Does the loss in body water play a role in the aging process? Alas, no one knows. But, we do know that dehydration accelerates the aging process whereas keeping hydrated decreases headaches, muscle aches, and kidney stones. Additionally a study conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that women who drank more than five glasses of water each day had a significantly decreased risk for developing colon cancer.[1]

Figure The Water Molecule

The water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Source: “Water Molecule” by Chris Martin / Public Domain

Fluid and Electrolyte Balance

Although water makes up the largest percentage of body volume, it is not actually pure water but rather a mixture of cells, proteins, glucose, lipoproteins, electrolytes, and other substances. Electrolytes are substances that, when dissolved in water, dissociate into charged ions. Positively charged electrolytes are called cations and negatively charged electrolytes are called anions. For example, in water sodium chloride (the chemical name for table salt) dissociates into sodium cations (Na+) and chloride anions (Cl−). Solutes refers to all dissolved substances in a fluid, which may be charged, such as sodium (Na+), or uncharged, such as glucose. In the human body, water and solutes are distributed into two compartments: inside cells, called intracellular, and outside cells, called extracellular. The extracellular water compartment is subdivided into the spaces between cells also known as interstitial, blood plasma, and other bodily fluids such as the cerebrospinal fluid which surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord (Figure “Distribution of Body Water”). The composition of solutes differs between the fluid compartments. For instance, more protein is inside cells than outside and more chloride anions exist outside of cells than inside.

Figure Distribution of Body Water

Our bodies are made up of ~60% water. This water consists of intracellular fluid and extracellular fluid. Extracellular fluid is composed of interstitial fluid and plasma. Source: image by Allison Calabrese / CC BY 4.0


One of the essential homeostatic functions of the body is to maintain fluid balance and the differences in solute composition between cells and their surrounding environment. Osmoregulation is the control of fluid balance and composition in the body. The processes involved keep fluids from becoming too dilute or too concentrated. Fluid compartments are separated by selectively permeable membranes, which allow some things, such as water, to move through while other substances require special transport proteins, channels, and often energy. Water is never transported actively; that is, it never takes energy for water to move between compartments. Although cells do not directly control water movement, they do control movement of electrolytes and other solutes and thus indirectly regulate water movement by controlling where there will be regions of high and low concentrations.



  1. Shannon JE, et al. Relationship of Food Groups and Water Intake to Colon Cancer Risk. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1996; 5(7), 495–502. http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/5/7/495.long. Accessed September 22, 2017.


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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.