When we were little our parents always told to eat our bananas to get potassium, or to drink Gatorade when we were sweating a lot after exercising to replenish our sodium, but we never fully understood why we needed these minerals also known as electrolytes. Chances are most of us still don’t understand what electrolytes are and why we actually need them after a sweaty workout. If that includes you, read on! Knowing the function of electrolytes and side effects of not replenishing them is crucial to staying healthy and in tune with your fitness lifestyle.
What Are Electrolytes?
First off, knowing what electrolytes are will make it much easier to understand their role in the body. When most nutrition professionals and athletes refer to electrolytes, they are talking about the combination of the minerals sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, among others (it’s easy to remember this because they all end in –ium). Electrolytes take on a positive or negative charge when they dissolve in your body fluid. This enables them to conduct electricity and move electrical charges or signals throughout your body. These charges are crucial to many functions that keep you alive, including the operation of your brain, nerves, and muscles, and the creation of new tissue (1).
Knowing the science behind the positive and negative electrical balance that electrolytes produce in your body is not necessary, what you should understand is how to balance your electrolytes. Balancing your electrolytes means to consume the right amounts of these minerals daily, increasing depending on your level of daily activity. Electrolytes can be excreted through urine and sweat, but on rare occasions people can imbalance their electrolytes during a fever because of the lack of fluids they are consuming and the extra fluids they are losing. As one of the main functions of electrolytes, balancing the amount of fluids in your body is very important to prevent dehydration, among other problems that can occur and will be discussed later in this article.
A more sedentary lifestyle where an individual isn’t exercising very often doesn’t have to worry too much about keeping their electrolytes balanced as strictly, but a lack of exercise usually comes with a diet that’s high in sodium and low in potassium. The optimal balance for these minerals is 1:1, meaning if you eat 3,000 mgs of sodium a day, you should be also eating 3,000 mgs of potassium. The normal western diet is also quite low in calcium and magnesium as well, with the daily recommended intake for calcium being 1,000 mgs and 400 mgs for magnesium. On the other hand, those of us who live an active lifestyle, sweat daily and drink high amounts of water, we need much more of these minerals to keep our bodies functioning correctly. Unlike the person who doesn’t consume enough electrolytes, someone who consumes the recommended daily amounts can still fall short due to the amount lost during exercise. Not to mention the electrolytes that are flushed out of the body because of all the extra water active individuals drink (that’s right, if you drink two gallons of water a day you need almost double the daily recommended amounts!).
Making sure to eat a diet full of nuts, fruits and veggies will give you enough potassium and magnesium, while eating dairy will make sure your calcium is where it is supposed to be. The one mineral that our diet has an abundance of is, you guessed it, sodium. Excess sodium can cause high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart failure, kidney stones and many other serious health problems, which is not good considering nine out of ten Americans consume more than double the amount of sodium recommended (1,500 mgs is recommended, 3,400 mgs is the average) (2). Of course one of the ways to combat the side effects of high sodium is to break a sweat on a daily basis, while also watching how much sodium is in your foods.
Imbalanced electrolytes can have many symptoms much less severe than the above mentioned illnesses (which is the extreme for chronically high sodium consumption), usually causing the problem to go unnoticed. A very prevalent sign of a slight imbalance is cramps, specifically at night. Usually waking the sufferer up in the middle of the night, this sometimes excruciating pain feels like your muscles are tightening and can occur in your feet, calves, thighs, abdominals, and even your chest muscles. A more severe case of low electrolytes can cause: irregular heartbeat, confusion, blood pressure changes, and nervous system or bone disorders. While conversely a case of electrolytes being too high can cause: weakness or twitching of the muscles (seizures), numbness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat and blood pressure changes (3).
What You Should Remember About Electrolytes
So whether you eat paleo, IIFYM, or the Twinkie diet, whether you run five miles a day, lift heavy three times a week or don’t exercise at all, we all need to be aware of electrolytes and make sure we are keeping them balanced. A diet full of fruits and veggies such as avocados, kiwi, bananas, potatoes (sweet, white, purple, whatever suits your fancy), spinach, kale and beans (opt for the reduced sodium if possible) will make sure your potassium intake is between two and four grams a day. Almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, oily fish like salmon and mackerel, and even dark chocolate will provide you with the 400 milligrams of magnesium your body required daily.
Dairy products such as fortified milk, yogurt, cheese, and non-dairy products such as green beans, broccoli, bok choy and tofu will give you your recommended one gram of calcium a day. And finally making sure to drink your body weight in ounces of fluids will make sure any extra sodium you get in your diet doesn’t stay in you long enough to create an imbalance. All of these foods, along with an active exercise routine will keep your electrolytes balanced, your body healthy, and your performance peaked!