If you’re a runner or cardio exercise buff, you’ve likely heard of the need for electrolytes. Electrolytes are ionized (electrically charged) salts in your body. They are what your cells (especially nerve, heart, and muscle) use to maintain electro-chemical connections across cell membranes and transmit electrical impulses (nerve impulses, muscle contractions) between and among cells.
Electrolyte concentrations in your blood are managed in your kidneys. And those concentrations are changing constantly as your body moves and processes waste. When you exercise heavily, you lose electrolytes in your sweat, particularly sodium and potassium.
The major electrolytes in your body include:
- Sodium (Na+)
- Potassium (K+)
- Chloride (Cl-)
- Calcium (Ca2+)
- Magnesium (Mg2+)
- Bicarbonate (HCO3-)
- Phosphate (PO42-)
- Sulfate (SO42-)
These ionized salts, most especially Sodium, regulate our nerve and muscle function, our body’s hydration, blood pH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissue.
Electrolyte levels change when the amount of water in your system goes up or down. When you exercise vigorously and sweat, for example, electrolyte levels fall as the salts hitch a ride out of your body with water through sweat glands. Some people are “salty sweaters”, and those people, along with very heavy sweaters, can lose large amounts of salt during exercise through their sweat. Thirst is an indicator of electrolyte loss, but by the time you feel thirsty, you may have lost up to 2% of your body weight through fluid loss.
Prolonged fever, vomiting, diarrhea, an inadequate diet, hormonal or endocrine disorders, and kidney disease can also cause an imbalance of electrolytes. In severe cases, electrolyte imbalances can lead to dehydration. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as low blood pressure, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), sunken eyes, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment, and poor skin elasticity.
Keep electrolyte levels constant
To keep electrolyte concentrations in our body fluids constant, these electrolytes must be replaced. Electrolytes come standard in some sports drinks and energy bars, but those drinks are usually accompanied by a hearty helping of calories and added sugar. A better way to replenish is changing your diet. Foods are a much more natural source of electrolytes and come with the added benefits of vitamins and other helpful minerals.
Many foods contain the key electrolyte, Calcium, but the richest sources include yogurt, collard greens, black-eyed peas and skim milk. You can grab Potassium from bananas, kiwis, cantaloupe, citrus fruits, as well as chicken, broccoli and most beans. Nuts, whole grains, leafy veggies and squash are high in Magnesium. Phosphorous can come from meats and milk products. Sodium is the key ingredient in table salt, but watch the intake of that salt because too much can cause adverse health effects.
So pay attention. If you sweat a lot, exercise a lot, or don’t eat very much, you should take extra steps to make sure you replenish electrolytes through diet. Sports drinks work for replacing electrolytes, as do supplement drinks like Pedialyte, but natural sources are better and don’t carry the extra sugar.