Electrolytes! You’ve probably heard this word pop up on your radar more than once. It seems to have become all the rage these days, as well as a great marketing tool. But what are electrolytes? And do you really need them?
Electrolytes are essential minerals, essential meaning they are necessary for body function and must be obtained from diet. These minerals consist of Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Chloride. They aid in the transportation of water from the external part of the cell into the inside of the cell, this is the process of hydration. Without proper electrolyte balance we are unable to properly transport water into our cells. So basically you are drinking all of that water just to pee most of it out, rather than to absorb it as desired.
When we do not consume enough electrolytes when drinking fluid our small intestines will pull these minerals out of other parts of our body to use for hydration. This is a great tactic for the short term as long as you are properly replacing these reserves throughout the rest of your day or week.
Should I supplement with electrolytes?
The answer to this question is very individualized.
For the average person moving through the motions of a sedentary day, a nutrient dense diet with some added Himilayan or Redmond’s real salt here and there should be enough to support hydration. It also wouldn't be a problem to pop a Nuun tablet into your water if you are feeling dehydrated, tired or if you are just looking for a way to make your water a little more interesting.
However, there are many ways in which electrolytes are used up and can become depleted. Factors such as sweating due to a hot environment or exercise or both can deplete electrolytes quite quickly. In fact, drinking only pure water during long, intense exercise can actually lead to a very serious and sometimes fatal condition called hyponatremia, this is especially worrisome for women in the high hormone phase of their cycle.
Other factors such as stress or digestive troubles, like IBS or IBD, can also rob the body of electrolytes or even act to inhibit their absorption in the first place. Any kind of circumstance which induces vomiting, diarrhea or digestive upset would be a good indicator that it is time to increase electrolyte intake.
The Keto diet or switching to a whole foods unprocessed diet is also a reason to increase your salt and electrolyte consumption. The low carb and fasting-like state of keto triggers the body to excrete sodium and potassium which leads to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration. When proper electrolytes and hydration are addressed the symptoms of the “keto flu” can often be avoided. Anytime a person switches off of the SAD (Standard American Diet), which is packed full of sodium rich processed foods, there is the need to increase pure, unrefined salt intake. This is because whole foods in their natural state are not usually rich in sodium. And contrary to popular belief, salt is not the devil. The real enemy here is the processed, refined foods typical to an average americans diet.
Another factor we can look at when considering electrolyte supplementation is the depletion of the mineral content of our soil. Due to the use of harsh chemicals as fertilizers and the degradation of our soils, the mineral content in our foods has plummeted and continues to do so with each passing year. While there are some ways to help mitigate this, such as buying regenerative agricultural products, there is no real way to avoid this fact altogether. This especially affects minerals such as magnesium and potassium. So many people today, especially women due to our cycles and stress levels are magnesium deficient. Supplementing with electrolytes may help to mitigate this deficiency and aid in proper hydration and muscle contraction and relaxation.
How do I know if I have an electrolyte imbalance?
Electrolytes play a vital role in cellular hydration and the nervous and cardiovascular systems. Sometimes your electrolytes may be slightly out of balance but you may not experience any symptoms. However long term electrolyte imbalances can be very hazardous leading to health problems such as osteoporosis and irreversible heart and brain damage.
Short-term effects of electrolyte imbalance include:
Feelings of exhaustion
So what should my electrolyte protocol be?
First and most importantly, DO NOT REACH FOR A STANDARD SPORTS DRINK. You know what i’m talking about, those drinks such as Gatorade or Propel. These “sports” drinks are all marketing with no science to back them up. These formulas have too high of a concentration of sugars. What this means is once it hits the small intestines, pressure is increased and the cells of the small intestine begin to expand and release endotoxins which increases pressure even more. The body responds to this pressure and osmolality by pulling water in to try and dilute the mixture so it can be absorbed. This pulls water from other places in the body, depleting precious fluid resources, while also causing a brush border effect in the intestines. This causes the concentration to sit in the intestines longer than desired, leading to potential digestive upset as well as dehydration.
Essentially, these conventional sports drinks DEHYDRATE YOU!
Second, read the above situations and scenarios and decide where you fall. Are you an endurance athlete training in the heat? Do you suffer from IBS and also follow a keto or low carb diet? Do you work an office job and take a walk around the neighborhood each evening?
Once you have decided where you fall in these categories, you will know if your electrolyte needs are high or low. If they are low then simply make sure to obtain electrolytes through food and salt supplementation. If your needs are on the higher end, then purchasing an electrolyte supplement as well as increasing salt consumption will be of tremendous benefit. Throughout the day remember to salt your food with a high quality salt and use functional hydration formulas such as Nuun tablets. For a general reference, you should be consuming about 5,000mg sodium, 1,000mg potassium and 300mg magnesium per day.
Right before and during long, strenuous workouts, lasting upwards of 1 ½ to 2 hours, you should consume an electrolyte drink more formulated to suit your needs. You can choose to do this by purchasing an electrolyte formula such as Nuun Endurance or you can choose to make your own homemade formula by mixing together 16 oz filtered water, about 2 - 3 tbsp maple syrup, and ½ tsp Trace Minerals endure electrolyte drops or 1 tsp sea salt. You can also add in some lemon or lime juice to taste if you desire. The correct formulation of electrolytes and sugars allows for proper absorption and utilization of the water in the small intestines. Always look for functional hydration drinks with 200 - 250ml osmos as well as a sugar / carbohydrate concentration around 6 - 7g / 8oz.
Lastly, it truly is somewhat of an experiment. Each person's electrolyte needs can vary widely. Age, weight, activity level, environment and factors such as digestion, sweat concentration and the phase of your cycle as a woman can all affect your electrolyte needs. In general, do what feels best to you. Personally, I pour out salt when I sweat and feel great on large quantities of salt and electrolyte drinks. Others may be sodium sensitive and even experience hypertension if not careful. Take everything slowly and cautiously and when in question talk to your doctor or nutritionist for individualized protocols.
Hydration is essential to health, vitality and performance. Taking the time to hone in on your electrolyte needs could be the world of difference you have been searching for.
It’s all the simple ways you choose to work with your body instead of against it, that will give you the health and happiness you deserve!