What are electrolytes and why are they important?
When you hear talk of “electrolytes”, it’s often a conversation about the chemicals sodium and chloride in your body.
Now for those of you who missed that day in high school chemistry, you don’t have to worry about anything harmful going on. You’re actually in contact with the combination of these two elements almost every day of your life!
Together, sodium and chloride form common table salt (which, chemically, is called sodium chloride).
In addition to this, though, there are many other equally important electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and all are valuable to all of us who take part in regular physical fitness.
You might ask yourself: what do these electrolytes do for my body?
Well, as you know, our body is a giant system of chemical and biological processes. Many of these processes are based on the principle of balance.
Electrolytes maintain an important balance in the body
Electrolytes are one tool of many that our body uses to balance out electrical charges that run between different cells and their periphery. These include the cells within your bloodstream, brain, and muscles.
Within your body, electrolytes function as ions. Ions are atoms or molecules with a positive or negative electric charge.
Important processes such as muscle contractions or nerve impulses rely on electrical impulses generated by the exchange of these ions around the cell membrane.
Therefore, the body will tightly regulate the balance of these ions on either side of the membrane for the electrical impulse to happen. This is one of the main mechanisms our nervous system cells use to communicate with each other.
This basically means you use up electrolytes by thinking or working out!
It’s important to note that your level of hydration will directly affect your electrolyte concentration, especially on the extracellular part, or outside, of your cells.
If the amount of water in your body is too low due to sweating during exercise, this will cause a higher concentration of electrolytes, mainly sodium ions (Na+), surrounding your cells and upset the balance of ions on each side of the cell membrane. In response, the body will excrete more sodium with the sweat to keep the balance of ions the same.
The opposite will happen if you have too much water in your body. This will cause the concentration of electrolytes surrounding your cells to be too low and also upset the balance of electrolytes. To balance out the concentration of ions, your body will produce more sweat while exercising with the aim to reduce the amount of water.
In both cases, an imbalance of ions on either side of your cell’s membrane will cause a decrease in cell function and can negatively impact performance.
How do you know you’re running low on electrolytes?
Running low on certain electrolytes can lead to a wide array of symptoms. Which symptoms you experience will depend on the electrolyte(s) you are lacking. Symptoms of low electrolytes may include muscle cramping or weakness, headaches, dizziness, or an irregular heartbeat.
Within your body, your kidneys are storing electrolytes for future use. They act as a guardian of electrolyte balance. They do this by filtering the bloodstream, making sure no electrolytes are excreted from our body without necessity. The kidneys are also managing our body’s hydration through certain hormones.
Most of the time, our body will be well-stocked with electrolytes through our diet. In general, the body will not allow the concentration of electrolytes to be affected so easily and sudden electrolyte deficiencies are rare.
However, when you train hard you may experience a lack of electrolytes because higher amounts of electrolytes are lost during training. This is due to both muscle contractions and sweating, and even the largest storage can run out if you don’t resupply.
But don’t worry, you can get your electrolytes back easily by eating the right foods!
How to replace electrolytes
So how can you replenish your electrolyte storage? In the case of sodium and chloride (i.e. salt), don’t worry! Most foods of the modern western diet are containing a high amount of salt. However, it is always a good idea to go for the healthiest options: Vegetables and vegetable soup are an excellent and healthy source for sodium, while chloride can be found in seaweed, celery, and tomatoes.
What about the other electrolytes? It is more common to be lacking potassium, calcium, or magnesium. For potassium, eat fruits like bananas and oranges. Spinach also contains a nice amount of potassium, as does coconut water (a good post-workout drink in the summer!)
For calcium, milk and yogurt are good sources. If you prefer non-dairy products, go for leafy greens or soy and almond drinks.
Magnesium can be found in avocados, cashews, or pumpkin seeds. You’ll also find it in halibut, along with extra protein and omega-3 fatty acids!
Looking for a fast, all-in-one solution? There are a lot of sports drinks on the market that could help. But keep in mind that the first choice for a Free Athlete should always be a healthy diet. However, if you need that extra boost after a tough workout, sports drinks are a good option.
Can you have too many electrolytes?
Now that we’ve discussed how to stay on top of our electrolyte needs, you might ask yourself: what about the opposite? Is it possible to have too many electrolytes?
In general, if you have normal, healthy kidney function, your body will excrete most of its excess electrolytes. People with kidney damage may have to watch out to avoid overconsuming electrolytes like potassium or chloride.
However, the one thing everyone should look out for is excess sodium. One factor here, as mentioned before, is the salt-rich Western diet. Make sure to avoid processed and overly salty food.