When you talk about electrolytes think sports drinks. Here is an overview of why and how you should supplement and what the risks and opportunities involved are. Please consult your doctor before making a decision on supplementing electrolytes and whether you have one of the mentioned symptoms or not, before taking action.
What are electrolytes ?
Electrolytes help you to transport information within your body via electrical charges to enable brain functions, muscle contraction, and transport of nutrients. Here is a definition for electrolytes which I found:
An electrolyte is a substance that produces an electrically conducting solution when dissolved in water. Electrolytes carry a charge and are essential for life. All higher forms of life need electrolytes to survive.
The most commonly known electrolyte is salt. Salt consists of Sodium (Na*) and Chlorid (Cl-). In its solid form, it is stored in any household. If dissolved into water, it creates a solution which is capable of transporting electrical charges. Pure water does not carry electrolytes. This is also the reason why drinking distilled water and too much water can be harmful to you, as you create Hypernatremia by lowering the concentration of sodium in your bodily fluids. Here are the main electrolytes in your body:
Sodium is mainly found in the fluids outside of cells and plays a main part in the regulation of fluids within the body. Potassium (K*) is concentrated most inside of your cells. Magnesium (Mg²*) and calcium (Ca²*) are closer to the blood stream of the body than to the cells (of course everything in the body is connected, so this is relative) and attach to proteins. If there are calcium deficiencies detected in an individual the magnesium concentration usually has to be brought up first to achieve the goal of calcium increase. Overall the body closely regulates the balances of the electrolytes via hormones (Renin, Angiotensin, Aldosterone, Vasopressin) which are mainly produced in the kidney and to some part in the heart, lungs, and brain.
Sodium helps to maintain the fluid balance to keep muscle contraction and nerve signalling up and running.
Chloride helps to maintain the fluid balance majority functioning as the chemical counterpart of sodium when solved in the bodily fluids.
Potassium stabilises blood pressure, regulates heart contractions and helps with the functionalities of muscles.
Magnesium has many roles including muscle contraction, regulating heart rhythm, nerve functioning, bone building, and strength, reducing anxiety, keep stable protein fluid balance and digestion.
Calcium forms and maintains bone and teeth. Supports blood clotting, cell division, muscle contraction and nerve signalling.
All in all a good electrolyte balance supports you in sports to perform at your best and avoid cardiovascular issues in endurance sports. Therefore, you should actively work on keeping the levels in balance when exercising hard.
How to take care of electrolyte intake ?
There are several factors playing into this. First and foremost your diet. The more processed food you eat the more likely it becomes that you are taking in too much sodium. Salt is an ingredient in processed food to make it more lasting and better tasting that you come back for more. By simply making your meals from scratch, rather than ready-made, you are already making a big step towards taking better care of your electrolyte intake.
While this will take care of most scenarios based on a healthy diet, marathoners and other athletes who are regularly exercising for a very long period of time (more than an hour) or have multiple very intense workouts planned through the day, want to go beyond just eating healthy. Electrolyte drinks are recommended for marathoners when running a marathon or their weekend long distance runs. A good rule of thumb for me when I was preparing for my three marathons in 2013 / 2014 was to drink every 30 minutes, slow a bit down for that purpose and drink about one cup. A cup is roughly two to three big sips out of a bottle. Some experts recommend 1.5 to 2.5 cups on every hour of training.
While I would not disagree with this fact, apply some common sense, also. Electrolytes need to be replaced because you sweat. My first marathon was a great example of that as a had some SKINS A400 on which messed up my natural hydration. The result was, that I could literally scrap salt from the inside of the suite when I finished the marathon. The point I am getting to here is that you only need to drink if you actually exercise hard and sweat. The more you sweat, the more you have to drink water with electrolytes in it. So the hotter the climate, the longer and harder the workout and the more prone you are to sweating, the more you need to replace.
Also remember, if you are on a very tight diet to get ripped, that most sport's drinks will also use a lot of sugar to make themselves appealing to you. So drinking Gatorade, the first ever of these sport drinks invented in 1965 in Florida, before and during exercise will help your electrolyte levels, but will also add some unnecessary sugar to your diet. Greg Everett proposes to add half a teaspoon of common salt and half a teaspoon of potassium chloride to a liter of water to provide a home-made sugar-free alternative ( I have not tried, so do not ask if this tastes nice, sounds horrid...). Here are the levels of electrolytes you should maintain:
- Calcium: 5–5.5 mEq/L
- Chloride: 97–107 mEq/L
- Potassium: 5–5.3 mEq/L
- Magnesium: 1.5-2.5 mEq/L
- Sodium: 136–145 mEq/L
As for natural sources of electrolytes here is a list of ingredients which help you to a more balanced diet. Watch out for recipes / diet plans including these:
- Electrolyte drinks
- Coconut water
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruit
- Cultured dairy (amasai / kefir /yogurt)
Causes of Electrolyte imbalance
As with all causes of diseases / malfunctions in the body, there can be many causes for electrolyte imbalance. They cluster around losing too much water, keeping too much water in or hormonal defects which inhibit the ability to maintain healthy electrolyte levels. This can include, but still is not a full list of possible causes:
- Poor diet
- Heart failure
- Kidney disease
- Eating disorders
- Severe burns
- Excessive exercise
As a common sense approach, if you have to go to the bathroom a lot while exercising like a maniac and taking an assortment of pills because of your medical history while only eating processed food... look into electrolytes and a different approach in general. If you are eating healthy, do not take medicaments, have healthy urine (white to straw coloured) you are fine. You get the gist of this.
What are the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance ?
There are minor and major symptoms of electrolyte imbalance. Minor symptoms are
- fluid retention
- Muscle aches twitches and weaknesses
If you have any of these look into your diet & supplement some sport's drinks. If it persists I think a visit to the general practitioner might be in order ( the scenario of I do all the right things, but still have these symptoms on a continuous basis). In this case it might be electrolytes or other factors contributing to your symptoms.
More severe symptoms in which you should call 911 / consult a doctor immediately are:
- confusion or sudden change in behavior
- severe muscle weakness,
- rapid / irregular heartbeat,
- chest pain
Who is at risk for imbalance ?
Here is an overview of people who are at risk for imbalance:
- Elderly people
- Anorexia and Bulimia patients
Elderly people have generally lesser fluids in their body and are therefore more prone for electrolyte imbalance. Marathoners and crossfitters exercise very intense for long periods of time at high stress. Therefore they should have a plan in place for replenishing electrolytes during competition. Anorexia and Bulimia patients are mainly at risk because they lose a lot of fluids through vomiting.
Why are electrolytes important for athletes ?
If you do not have your electrolytes in check you will not perform to your utmost best. This is due to your muscles and nervous system being impeded to perform through lack of electrolytes. If you want to outdo the competition, make sure that your body is well nourished and prepared for the battering. Electrolytes are an important part of this, especially when competition drags on for hours or days. Sprinters might see less need for electrolytes than endurance athletes due to the nature of their sport.
For you as a marathoner, crossfitter, lifter and sports enthusiast (which I assume if you read this blog) we can focus on the sports appliances of getting more electrolytes in your body and whether you supplement or not. Based on what I read I think it is advisable to have a sports drink ready for your intense workouts which make you sweat heavy. Take two to three sips when you rest between sets when weightlifting longer than half an hour. It is up to you whether you buy a ready made sports drink for that purpose or mix your own.
For endurance athletes, have a bottle with you especially for your long runs. I found that runs longer than 10 miles definitely need a water bottle with some extras in it. 3 - 10km runs depend on your fitness level. I dared to do those without any water bottle on me, as I can do these runs in 30 - 50 minutes. However if your fitness level lets you go over an hour for these distances, prepare yourself accordingly.
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