Updated: Mar 29
What are electrolytes and what do they do? Are electrolytes necessary in our daily consumption? Are they something we need to consume in supplement form or can they be included in our daily diet? Do we need to consume electrolytes with every exercise session?
Electrolytes are vital to our body's ability to function normally. However, does it need to always be provided as supplement through drinks or other forms such as powders or pills? Commercialism and consumerism tell us that we need to have these supplements on hand, and we need to consume them in order to perform at our best. These supplements have become very readily available including drinks like Gatorade and Powerade to name a couple of the most popular brands.
In today's blog post, we talk about electrolytes and answer the questions I have mentioned above. Follow along as we dive deep into this one and get to the bottom of if you need to spend your extra hard-earned cash on these supplements or could you obtain these from other foods for cheaper.
Electrolytes - What Are Electrolytes? What Are Electrolytes Important For?
Electrolytes are essentially minerals, compounds, and components of a structure that makes it conductive to electricity when dissolved in water. All of these are essential in all contractions of all our muscles, including our heart, as well as the appropriate functioning of body systems and our brain. With appropriate levels, we can maintain homeostasis where we function optimally. However, if we have too much or too little, then we can have suboptimal function and health issues that are created as a result.
The most common electrolytes that are present in our body and essential for bodily function include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and calcium.
Let’s take an even closer look at what each of the main electrolytes in the body do to keep the body healthy:
Sodium helps regulate the fluid levels in our bodies and in our blood, making sure they are balanced. This also helps balance blood pressure and keep it within a healthy range. Like many electrolytes, sodium is crucial to nerve function, helping send out nerve signals to the rest of the body. It plays a massive role in muscle contraction as well.
Similar to sodium, chloride maintains balanced fluid levels in the blood plasma and the body. It also regulates the pH balance of the blood, making sure it is within the normal, slightly alkaline range (7.35-7.45). Chloride also supports optimal digestive function.
Potassium is essential to heart function and health. It regulates and maintains blood pressure, and sends nerve signals from the heart to other cells in the body. Potassium also facilitates muscle contraction and can be behind muscle spasms or cramping, including the beating of the heart. In addition to all of this, potassium supports bone, muscle, and nerve health.
This helps regulate calcium in the cells, so anything that calcium is involved in also relates back to the work of magnesium. Additionally, magnesium maintains a normal heart rhythm, manages blood sugar levels, and supports the production of genetic material.
Similar to magnesium, phosphate has a close relationship with calcium. It helps form teeth and bones, and promotes nerve and muscle function. Phosphate also aids in tissue growth and repair.
Most well-known for building strong bones and teeth–you probably consumed a lot of it when you were growing up. Calcium also helps regulate blood pressure and allows for healthy blood clotting. Like many other electrolytes, it is involved in muscle contraction, particularly in sending out nerve signals from skeletal muscle cells.
How to Naturally Add Electrolytes to Your Diet?
Essentially, electrolytes are crucial in providing you with the appropriate balance in your body to function as mentioned above. These are all very common elements found in compounds, foods and other drinks and can definitely be consumed through regular diet:
· Sodium and Chloride - this one is very easy, essentially consuming salty foods that can include cured meats such as ham or bacon. However, for those who are trying to avoid meat or have more of a vegan/vegetarian-based lifestyle, you can get these from pickles, olives, salted nuts, many commercial oats/grains including bread, edamame, or even any cheeses you may consume.
· Potassium: bananas, dried fruits and nuts, beans, lentils, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, avocados and more
· Magnesium: whole grains, seeds, nuts, bananas, greens, dry beans, and more
· Phosphate: grains, beans, lentils, poultry, pork, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and quinoa just to name a few.
· Calcium: dairy products, green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, sardines
As you can see, there are many ways you can get these same nutrients and electrolytes in your daily diet. So, should electrolytes really be consumed regularly through a supplement? Let's find out more
When Should Electrolytes Be Consumed as a Supplement to Foods You Are Already Consuming?
When exercising, especially when participating in organized sports, it is essential to have the appropriate fuel for the job to keep you performing at your best throughout the workout or event. Having too much or too little nutrients that are vital to your performance could have negative secondary consequences including cramping, decreased performance, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
What and when to consume the appropriate fuel are very dependent on the duration, intensity, and the type of activity you are performing. As with all sports, consuming the right meal prior to and after the activity is just as important as what you consume during the activity. This is a much bigger topic so let's just stick to our topic at hand for today.
If the activity you are performing is something low level and involves regular movement but still allows you to have a conversation, even if the activity is longer than an hour, water consumption is completely fine. The only caveat I would have here is if you are sweating excessively due to extreme heat and you KNOW that you are a salty sweater, then having consumption of some level of an electrolyte drink would be necessary.
If the activity you are performing is something moderate to high intensity, and does not allow you to have a conversation but lasts less than an hour, you can probably get away with water solely as well. However, if you are a salty sweater and the heat is involved then consumption of an electrolyte supplement along with water may be necessary.
If the activity is moderate to high intensity and lasts longer than an hour, then consumption of electrolytes ALONG with regular water consumption (especially at the 45 minute mark) is necessary to maintain performance and homeostasis. This replenishment of nutrients can be consumed through several forms including gels, drinks, or solids. It all depends on what your body can tolerate the best. This takes a little bit of trial and error but once you have your solution down, you will be good to go.
Based on what was mentioned above, consuming electrolytes is NOT essential to consume with every workout. The consumerism and commercialism of consumption of these drinks and supplements at times can lead you to be over-supplemented while also consuming a large amount of sugar (especially if consuming commercially produced drinks like Gatorade and Powerade). There are plenty of other brands and products to be aware of out there so be mindful about what is in the ingredients. Salt, potassium, and magnesium are ones you should be looking for...but SUGAR is NOT one. Additionally, artificial and "natural" flavors are something you should be looking out for too. The more ingredients of things you are not sure how to pronounce or things that sound like you do not want to consume are maybe products you want to do more research on.
Lastly, lack of consumption or overconsumption of electrolytes can leave you with different levels of health-related issues, ranging from mild to life threatening. These can range from headaches, muscle cramps, decreased performance, and dizziness to heart arrhythmias, coma, and even death.
There are also physical indicators you should look out for that can signal an electrolyte deficiency. High-intensity exercise that produces a lot of salty sweat that may leave stains on your clothes or leave you looking a little chalky. You can use your urine as an indicator that you're properly hydrated.; aim to have your urine be clear to light yellow.
Knowing and understanding what and how much you need to a degree is important to preventing these issues. The more severe health issues I mentioned occur with more severe depletion or over consumption of electrolytes and therefore isn't a MAJOR worry...rather just something to be aware of. Stopping the activity or altering your electrolyte consumption when symptoms first appear will help keep you from getting the severe ones.
Conclusion and Summary About Electrolytes
What works for some may not work for others. Trying something different may work better for you than the regular consumer but that doesn't mean you need to resort to commercialized sugary drinks. If you have other questions about what you should be consuming during your workouts or would like to start a program to improve your health, please let us know! We would love to hear your goals and assist in any way to make sure you achieve them healthily. If you would like to learn more or speak with a Doctor of Physical Therapy, please give us a call at 516-387-4669. If you would like to read more of our blog posts, please CLICK HERE. If you would like to follow us along as we present more information about different topics related to endurance athletics, please give us a follow on our Instagram.