By Chris Latham
You’ve heard it before – as an athlete, you NEED electrolytes to perform at your best. Electrolyte this, and electrolyte that.
But what are electrolytes?
There are 5 key electrolytes utilized by the human body: Calcium, Potassium, Sodium, Magnesium, and Chloride. You obtain these electrolytes through eating and drinking. You lose them through exercise, sweating, and going to the bathroom/urinating. This is why it is best to “pre-load” with electrolytes, such as via a supplement, prior to an athletic endeavor of more than two hours. In addition, for heavy endurance events it is best to continually re-supplement your electrolyte load every 30 minutes to one hour depending upon the conditions. For example, the effect of a Hawaiian Ironman race might be far more depleting than say a cold weather marathon in the winter time.
Electrolytes such as these “give up” their energy in solution, making them capable of conducting electricity. Electrolytes get their name because they literally have an “electric charge.” They separate into positively and negatively charged ions when dissolved in water, and this in turn affects and regulates hydration in the body, blood pH, blood pressure, and they’re crucial for muscle and nerve function.
The ability to conduct electricity gives electrolytes literal power in your body. Electrolytes in the body activate muscle contractions. Without these natural ‘salts’ in your body, you’d be worthless. You couldn’t speak, move or think. And without sufficient levels of the key electrolytes, also known as an electrolyte imbalance, muscle weakness and cramps (severe muscle contractions) will occur.
Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by a number of different factors including dehydration, medicines you might be taking, short-term illnesses, and underlying chronic disorders.
Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance you might experience as an athlete include:
- Muscle aches, spasms, twitches, and weakness
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
- Confusion or trouble concentrating
- Blood pressure changes
- Dizziness, especially noticeable when standing up suddenly
An essential electrolyte for humans, sodium is responsible for controlling the total amount of water in the body. It is also important for regulating blood volume and maintaining muscle and nerve function. This creates one-half of the electrical pump that keeps electrolytes in balance between the intracellular and extracellular environments (i.e., sodium outside of cells and potassium inside of cells). Generally speaking, and not addressing a specific type of athlete such as power versus endurance, a great source of sodium I would recommend is Himalayan Sea Salt included with a meal containing protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Hypernatremia – An excess of sodium in bodily fluids is called hypernatremia and generally comes from having too little water in the body – you’re likely more familiar with it called dehydration. This can lead to weakness, lethargy, and in severe cases seizures or coma.
Hyponatremia – Too little sodium is called hyponatremia and is the most common electrolyte disorder in the United States. Often caused by severe diarrhea or vomiting, symptoms may include headache, confusion, fatigue, hallucinations and muscle spasms.
Works closely with sodium to maintain proper balance and pressure of the various fluid compartments of the body (blood, inside cells, and the fluid between cells). It is also vitally important for maintaining proper acidity in the body, passively balancing out the positive ions of blood, tissue and organs. As with sodium, chloride is also found in Himalayan Sea Salt.
Whereas sodium is mainly found outside cells, potassium is the major cation inside cells and is hugely important for regulating heartbeat and muscle function. It forms the other half of the electrical pump that keeps electrolytes in balance and allows conductivity between cells, also making potassium a critical part of neuron transmission. Foods rich in potassium include bananas and sweet potatoes.
Necessary for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, it also plays an important role in the synthesis of both DNA and RNA, essential to every cell of every known living organism. The fourth most prevalent mineral in the human body, magnesium helps maintain normal nerve and muscle function, boosts the immune system, maintains stable heart rate, stabilizes blood sugar, and promotes the formation of bones and teeth. Nuts and green leafy vegetables are good sources of magnesium.
You probably already know that calcium is necessary for the formation of bones and teeth, but what you may not realize is that it’s also critical for transmission of nerve impulses, blood clotting, and muscle contraction. Being the most abundant mineral in your body, about 99% of all calcium is found in the skeletal structure. That said, your body also needs a balance in the bloodstream and other cells (especially your muscle cells). If there is not enough calcium in your blood, it is taken from your bones to supplement the deficiency; left unchecked, this lack of calcium can eventually lead to Osteoporosis. Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium including yogurt, plain milk, and kefir.
Thus, a great post-workout snack would be a smoothie containing milk, banana, almond butter, and salt. Feel free to add some cinnamon and vanilla extract for additional flavor.
The Balance of electrolytes
Each electrolyte plays a critical role in keeping your body running well, but the key thing to note is that they function in a balance. As an athlete, don’t just focus on Sodium or Potassium to stave off cramps. You also need calcium, magnesium and chloride. Ensure that any electrolyte supplement you take contains a balance of these key electrolytes. As the title says: It’s all in the balance.
About the Author
Chris Latham is a clinical nutritionist in Santa Barbara, CA. She has a Masters degree in Applied Clinical Nutrition and is a CNS (Certified Nutrition Specialist). She is a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine, American College of Nutrition, and the American Nutrition Association. She specializes in GI health, sports nutrition, hormones, and overall wellness. She is a past president of the Santa Barbara Triathlon Club and was triathlete of the year in 2013.