Electrolytes and Athletic Performance: Why and How Your Body Uses Them
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals, such as sodium and potassium, that have certain chemical properties crucial to proper bodily function.
By now you probably know--through advertisements, trainers, or friends--that electrolytes are extremely important to staying healthy. However, why they are important can be a bit more complicated. Let’s dive into electrolytes and what they mean for you and your body.
Why Do I Need Electrolytes?
For starters, they are vital to several bodily functions. Most people only think of staying hydrated when it comes to electrolytes but there are actually a number of reasons why they are important--some of which you may never have thought of.
It’s what most people think of when they think of electrolytes and for good reason. Without electrolytes, your body would not be able to balance the levels of water between cells. This would lead to some seriously negative results.
When you work out, or simply engage in day-to-day life, different cells use more water than others. This naturally creates imbalances throughout the body. To fix this, your body uses osmosis to balance the levels of water.
But in order to do this, there needs to be electrolytes in your cells. Your body cannot just move water to where it is needed. There needs to be a difference in the concentration of molecules in the water (in this case electrolytes) between cells. If there are similar levels of electrolytes in all of the cells, water will naturally flow from areas with more water to areas with less water in order to equalize the concentration of molecules in the water.
Maintaining Your Nervous System
To control your body, your brain sends out electrical signals through your nervous system. These signals are referred to as nerve impulses and are how your body communicates with itself. They are generated by changes to the electrical charge of the nerve cells’ membrane.
Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty science, sodium and potassium are what manage these electrical charges. When electrolytes are added to water, they make it electrically conductive--meaning electric currents can pass through them. So without electrolytes, your brain would not be able to communicate with your body.
Similar to the nervous system, electrolytes are needed for the proper functioning of muscles. Calcium is what contracts muscles while magnesium is what allows them to relax.
From the decision to move a muscle to the moment it contracts and then relaxes, 4 types of electrolytes are utilized by your body. Deficiencies or imbalances of either of these 4 types can lead to muscle cramps or fatigue.
Balancing pH Levels
When you work out, your body naturally creates lactic acid. Lactic acid can be toxic to surrounding cells as well as lower your body’s pH level. The electrolyte bicarbonate neutralizes this acid and keeps pH levels at a healthy level.
Bicarbonate also neutralizes other acids that your body creates, such as gastric acid. Luckily, bicarbonate is naturally produced in our bodies so there is no need to supplement it.
How Are Electrolytes Lost?
They can be lost in a number of ways. When you sweat your body loses electrolytes including sodium and chloride. While the human body can handle some of the losses associated with sweating, intense exercise can deplete electrolyte levels beyond what our body can quickly replenish. In this case, you will need to incorporate added electrolytes into your exercise routine.
Urine contains high levels of the electrolytes sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium. This is part of the process of your kidneys removing excess molecules from your body. So there’s no need to worry about electrolytes lost through urine. That is unless the urine itself is excessive. Diuretics, such as alcohol, cause higher than normal urination, which can lead to unhealthy imbalances.
Vomiting and diarrhea also cause electrolyte loss. Sick individuals who have either of these symptoms should make sure to supplement their diet with added electrolytes.
An electrolyte deficiency can also be caused not by your physical exercise or sickness, people with kidney disease will be unable to properly regulate mineral levels in their blood. In addition, older individuals’ kidneys are typically less efficient, causing similar difficulties.
Do I Need to Add Electrolytes to My Diet?
If you have a healthy, balanced diet and don’t engage in intense or regular exercise, you should be okay without adding any electrolytes. As long as you keep drinking water to stay hydrated, there will be no need to add anything.
So Who Does Need Added Electrolytes?
If you exercise more than the average person you will almost certainly need to consume extra electrolytes. To avoid cramps and dehydration, endurance athletes should make sure to drink electrolyte drinks or add electrolyte powder to their water to maintain a healthy balance.
Even if you don’t work out for long, if your exercises are intense, especially when they are taxing on the central nervous system like heavy lifting is, then you should add electrolytes. The overall taxation of your body and the loss of electrolytes from sweat will need to be balanced out.
If you are sick, you are likely rapidly losing electrolytes faster than your body can handle. This can cause dehydration, cramping, and other symptoms that can actually make your illness worse. It is crucial to ensure that you have all the electrolytes you need to ensure a quick recovery. You can do this simply by adding electrolyte powder to a water bottle or drinking pre-made hydration drinks.
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it causes higher than normal urination. Your body also needs more water to process the alcohol. This causes dehydration and loss of electrolytes. To combat this, add some ATAQ electrolyte powder to your alcohol! Just kidding, this would not taste good, but you should make sure to drink some water with hydration mix mixed in. This will go a long way to help you stay healthy, and it’s also a great hangover cure!
Ketogenic Diets (Keto)
This one is pretty specific, but if you follow a keto diet your body will have a harder time retaining water. You will find that you have to urinate a lot more. Similar to a diuretic, keto diets will cause higher than normal losses of water and therefore electrolytes, so supplementation becomes important.
What Happens If I Don’t Have Enough Electrolytes?
An electrolyte imbalance can be very bad for your health. Electrolyte levels in body fluids naturally fluctuate, but due to the causes we talked about above, or an electrolyte disorder, your levels may become too high or too low.
Here are some common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance:
Other symptoms that are possible, though not as common:
- Muscle Weakness
- Stiff Joints
- Lack of perspiration
If the imbalance is significant, you may experience even more extreme symptoms. If you experience any of these you should seek immediate medical care by calling 911.
- Rapid Heart Rate
If you regularly experience any of the above symptoms even with added electrolytes, you should consult a doctor for medical advice as you may have an underlying disorder.
Where Can I Find Electrolytes?
Fruits and Vegetables
A healthy diet that incorporates fruits and vegetables will supply you with a good amount of electrolytes. Fruit juices are a great way to add electrolytes as well as water. However, fruits tend to be high in sugar, so don’t rely on these as your only source. Here are some fruits and vegetables we recommend:
- Coconut Water
Drinks designed specifically for workouts tend to be a great source of electrolytes. Unfortunately, some drinks that market themselves as sports drinks are really just a soft drink disguised as a sports drink. These tend to have a decent amount of electrolytes but also extremely high amounts of artificial sweeteners and added sugars which may actually work against you.
A proper electrolyte drink will minimize sugar while keeping electrolyte levels at a positive level. They may not taste quite as good but that’s not the purpose of a sports drink, it’s to fuel your body and kick butt naturally!
Electrolyte powders are also a great way to replenish essential minerals. These usually contain healthy doses of sodium, potassium, and magnesium to help keep you hydrated during a workout. They also tend to be far healthier than pre-made drinks.
Dairy contains high levels of calcium, which is an important electrolyte. Yogurt, in particular, is one of the healthiest ways to consume dairy. If you are allergic to dairy, you should find another way to implement calcium into your diet. Some great non-dairy sources of calcium are almonds, salmon, beans, spinach, and kale.
Salt is high in sodium and chloride. While it can be a good source of these electrolytes, your body does not react well to excessive salt. Doctors recommend just one teaspoon of salt per day--which is already less than most people consume.
Tip: Sea Salt contains magnesium, calcium, and potassium but table salt does not because of its processing. However, table salt does include iodine.
The Bottom Line
Electrolytes are essential to keeping us healthy. They perform a number of functions key to day-to-day life.
If you work out often or engage in intensive exercise, you should be adding electrolytes to your diet. The best way to do this is by adding them before, during, and after your workouts so that the electrolytes are being replenished as they are being lost.
Fruits and vegetables such as bananas and spinach are some of the best sources of electrolytes. Electrolyte drinks and powders are also great ways to supply your body with the minerals it needs. Just make sure that you read the label!
Here at ATAQ, our Electrolyte Hydration Mix gives you all the electrolytes you need to replenish after working out with less than ⅓ of the sugar than other sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade. While Gatorade only includes sodium and potassium, our proprietary formula also includes calcium and magnesium, as well as 2x the potassium. We only use natural cane sugar in our products and our hydration mix includes betaine, a unique ingredient that actively metabolizes carbs and proteins. To replenish and refresh after a tough workout, choose ATAQ!