What You Need To Know About Electrolytes!
Electrolytes are an important part of our diets, but if you think that drinking some Coconut water or eating a banana helps cure or prevent cramping, then you need to think again. Here is what you need to know about electrolytes…
There are 4 main electrolytes we will focus on:
- Sodium (Na+),
- Potassium (K+),
- Calcium (Ca++), and
- Magnesium (Mg++).
Each electrolyte has a distinct function but they work in unison to create optimal cell performance. If our electrolytes get too far out of balance they can counteract each other and hinder performance.
It is important to keep adequate amounts of electrolytes in the diet, but it is more important to keep them in balance.
Electrolytes are charged particles within the body that maintain proper cell function. One common mistake is that those who regularly exercise believe that they need to constantly replenish their electrolytes due to the loss in sweat.
It is true that these electrolytes are lost through sweat, among other things, but we should keep in mind that our body is smart. Our body wants to hold onto these valuable nutrients as long as it can. With this in mind, our body attempts to retain the electrolytes which are low in the system and releases the ones which are in excess.
Sodium (Na+) is always present in sweat while the other electrolytes are in much lesser amounts. Due to this, water is the only necessary nutrient that needs to be replenished if exercise lasts less than one hour.
Don’t go around thinking that you need a calorie filled sports drink or Coconut Water just because you did some light activity for 30 minutes.
For events lasting longer than one hour, some electrolytes need to be restored. Just avoid overindulging on added sugars while replenishing your electrolytes, unless needed due to your daily energy expenditure. Remember, you don’t need it unless you have been continuously sweating for at least 60 minutes, not including breaks.
Sodium (Na+) is an electrolyte that commonly works with potassium (K+).
Its main functions are to:
- maintain our body’s fluid balance,
- send nerve impulses and
- allow for muscle contraction.
These functions are actually what stop cramping! Sodium (Na+) helps our cells to maintain hydration, but, more importantly, it prevents cramping through sending signals to our muscle to turn on and off. When we do not have enough Sodium (Na+), then our muscles cramp as our body turns a muscle on and saves Sodium (Na+) by not sending the signal to turn it off. This creates cramping.
While these are important functions, too much Sodium (Na+) causes high blood pressure, filtering systems dysfunction and potassium (K+) deficiency.
Sodium (Na+) works with potassium (K+) but has the opposite effect. If one gets too high in balance, it will prevent the other nutrient from performing its job.
Sodium (Na+) is a hard nutrient to avoid, being found in salt along with most everything processed. For those that exercise regularly, this is not commonly a concern due to sweat rates and the amount used for muscle contraction. However, those that are sedentary, or who have known heart problems, should avoid excess sodium (Na+) intake due to the increased stress it places on your heart.
Though it should not be banned entirely, sedentary individuals should avoid large amounts by limiting the number of processed foods consumed. Generally, anything edible within a package has some amount of salt, so be smart about your consumption.
Overall, to improve overall performance and health, a greater concern should be placed upon the intake of potassium (K+) relative to sodium (Na+).
Potassium (K+) works with Sodium (Na+) in our cells to maintain an equal charge balance.
Other functions include:
- maintaining osmotic pressure within the cell,
- blood pressure regulation and
- it is necessary for muscle strength and contraction.
Due to the large amounts of sodium (Na+) commonly consumed, and the lack of a proper diet, potassium (K+) is commonly overrun.
To keep your muscles in an optimal state of performance, try to get a good amount of potassium (K+) through your regular diet. Good food sources are avocados, tomatoes, coconut water, dark green vegetables and, of course, bananas.
If you have a low Sodium (Na+) Diet due to health-related issues, then avoid having an excess of Potassium (K+) which will actually cause more issues by throwing off your Sodium-Potassium Electrolyte balance.
Also, avoid an excessive amount of sugars that generally come along with potassium sources unless intense exercise proceeds.
Calcium (Ca++) is one of the most important nutrients and electrolytes in the body; especially for active individuals.
Calcium’s (Ca++) main function is initiating muscle contraction. Without calcium (Ca++), our muscles cannot contract.
Though this is important for our skeletal muscles, it is most important for our heart or cardiac muscles.
Without calcium (Ca++) in the blood being brought to our cardiac muscle cells, they will no longer be able to contract and our heart will stop. This is not very common due to our large calcium (Ca++) stores we call bones but can happen with too much exercise within a short period.
Our body would much rather break down our bone tissue so our heart can work rather than let our heart stop beating even once.
Remember, our bodies are smart. The only thing our bodies care about is survival. With this backup system in place, we do not have to worry much about our heart-stopping. However, if we want to keep our bones strong and increase our muscle contraction ability to become stronger, then we need a good amount of Calcium (Ca++) in our diet.
Good sources include dairy products, dark green vegetables, and bony fish.
Note: Calcium (Ca++) intake is most important for women, especially during puberty. This is because women’s ability to absorb Calcium (Ca++) greatly slows post-puberty and nearly stops around age 30. Therefore, women have to consume an entire lifetime worth of Calcium (Ca++) before the age of 30.
*Be careful not to over-consume large amounts all at once.
Magnesium (Mg++) is an electrolyte that is commonly overlooked.
Its common functions are:
- as a structural component in our muscle cells,
- to help lower blood pressure and
- prevent heart arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats.
Also, Magnesium (Mg++) levels help to control the functions of Calcium (Ca++) in the body. If Magnesium (Mg++) is too low, then our Calcium (Ca++) metabolism will not be optimized.
To maintain a healthy heart and be able to gain new muscle cells keep an adequate amount of Magnesium (Mg++) in your diet. Just don’t take Magnesium (Mg++) and Calcium (Ca++) supplements together, as they compete for absorption within the body.
Some good sources are green vegetables, potatoes, nuts, and seeds.
The Bottom Line
Electrolytes are vital for our health but do not believe the new fad drinks that have you loading up on one nutrient without considering the effects it has on the rest of your body.
Know your nutrients, and know your body. Get what you need and not too much of one electrolyte versus another.
Now go salt your bananas, and have some nuts in your milk!