What are Electrolytes Anyway?
Institute Nutritionist Jenna Moore, RD
If you have ever seen a Gatorade commercial, you know that water isn’t the only important element to staying hydrated – electrolytes play a large role in making sure your body performs optimally as well. Electrolytes are a number of minerals that are important for regulating water transport and muscle contraction, they include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride. Glucose also plays a large role in making sure these electrolytes work. Here’s the low down on electrolytes.
Sodium is more than just salt, it is absolutely essentialfor your body. While it may add some great flavor, is also works in tandem with calcium, potassium, chloride and magnesium in nerve function. Nerve function which plays a huge role in muscle contraction. When your trainer tells you to sprint, you send a signal from your brain to your muscles to go from zero to maximum speed through your nerves. This is true for any activity you are doing and if you do not have enough sodium to conduct those nerve signals, your response time will be impaired. To be responsive in exercise, games, or your daily activities you’ll need some salt.
A significant portion of sodium leaves your body through your sweat. This happens because as you are using sodium in your nerves when you’re moving more – you will have higher salt needs as an athlete. Though sodium (salt) is essential to maintaining healthy movement, keep in mind that when you eat too much salt, the water in your body rushes away from your muscle tissues and into your bloodstream to absorb the salt. If you lose water from your muscles their efficiency, and therefore your performance, will be impaired.
To figure out how much sodium you need, it is important to know that the amount that is excreted from the body is highly variable from person to person. It can range from 200 mg to 1,600 mg per liter of perspiration. Research states that during exercise, athletes should replenish with 200-800 mL of fluid per hour that contains 460-690 milligrams of sodium per liter (about 34 ounces) of fluid. To put this in practical terms, drink 7-30 ounces of fluid every hour that you’re exercising with 95-600 mg of sodium.
After sodium, potassium may be the next most important electrolyte mineral. Potassium works with sodium and chlorine to regulate the balance between water outside and inside of your cells. You do not lose nearly as much potassium in your sweat as you do sodium (117 – 585 mg per liter of sweat), so making an effort to consume foods that are high in potassium every day (such as bananas, spinach, avocado, winter squash and yogurt) should be enough to replenish what you lose in your sweat.
Approximately 60% of the population in the U.S. is deficient in this mineral. This is problematic especially for an athlete because magnesium is required in order to make energy. Therefore, athletes have an especially increased need for magnesium. Consider adding a magnesium supplement to your daily routine as multivitamins rarely provide 100% of your daily needs for this mineral. A few magnesium-rich foods include sunflower seeds, almonds and spinach.
Finally, a nutrient that often gets overlooked in hydration during exercise is glucose – a fast-acting carbohydrate. This fuel is so important because in order for sodium and potassium (and all of the other electrolyte minerals) to work optimally, they need energy. Glucose works quickly to deliver energy to the cells so that they can push potassium in and sodium out – this is how muscle contraction works.
There are a lot of considerations when staying hydrated, so to sum it all up, take these recommendations into consideration:
- Hydrate effectively by taking small sips multiple times throughout the day
- Find an electrolyte product that has enough sodium to correlate with how much you personally sweat – don’t over-do it
- Eat 1-2 potassium-rich foods every day
- Consider taking a magnesium supplement (320 mg/day for women and 420 mg/day for men)
As members of The Institute, you have the amazing opportunity to have any of your questions about nutrition answered by one of our registered dieticians, if you have any specific questions just reach out!
Jenna Moore, RD