What exactly are electrolytes, why are they important and how can you get them? Believe it or not, they naturally occur in foods and are easy to get!
If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of Gatorade, you’ve likely seen the term “electrolytes”. But why is this scientific term so important to athletes, when do you need electrolytes, and can you get them without drinking sugar-filled sports drinks?
Electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge and play a central role in the body’s fluid balance. Specifically, the important electrolytes for athletes are sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
They’re necessary for proper hydration, acid-base balance and preventing muscle cramps. They’re especially important during exercise because electrolytes like sodium and potassium are easily lost in sweat.
Unfortunately, a deficiency in electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, weakness, tingling, or confusion–none of which are pleasant during your workout! With that being said, it makes sense that beverage companies have developed a drink to replace lost electrolytes, but when do you actually need to drink them?
For the average person working out for less than an hour, electrolyte losses are usually minimal and water should be enough to keep you properly hydrated. But as a general rule of thumb, you need to replace electrolytes lost in sweat if:
- you exercise for longer than an hour
- you live in a really hot climate
- you are a heavy sweater (you sweat through your clothes or have chalky white spots on your skin after exercise)
Sports drinks contain the electrolytes you need to stay hydrated and fueled during an intense workout, but you can also find electrolytes in food. Let’s dive into the essential electrolytes and where to find natural sources of each.
Sodium: This mineral aids in fluid retention and plays a role in nerve and muscle function, as well as blood volume and blood pressure control. Without enough sodium, blood pressure may drop or you can become dehydrated.
It’s true that most Americans meet (and exceed) their daily sodium recommendations. For those who workout intensely or sweat profusely, it may be necessary to add an extra pinch of table salt to your meals. Sodium is found in your favorite salty snacks and most canned and packaged foods.
If you meet any of the criteria listed in the bullet points above, try adding some of these salty foods to your diet:
- table salt
- saltine crackers
Calcium: Everyone knows calcium as the mineral responsible for bone health. Although 99% of calcium is stored in our bones, the rest functions as an electrolyte in the in the the body. Calcium helps with nerve signaling, blood clotting, hormone secretion, muscle contraction, and normal heart function. Without ample calcium consumption, the body pulls calcium from the bones, causing them to weaken overtime.
These foods are good sources of calcium and make a great addition to any athlete’s diet:
- Dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese)
- Dried Figs
- Chia Seeds
- Leafy Greens
- Soy Products
- Fortified Oatmeal
- Fortified Orange Juice
- Enriched Milk Alternatives
- Canned Fish with soft edible bones
Magnesium: While calcium helps muscles contract, magnesium causes them relax. Magnesium also allows muscles to take in oxygen and plays a role in maintaining a normal heartbeat and muscle function. Not eating enough magnesium may negatively affect athletic performance and can cause weakness and even muscle spasms.
Great sources of magnesium include:
- Nuts & Seeds – pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds/butter, almonds, flax seeds, cashews, chia seeds
Potassium: A vital part of hydration and muscle contraction (including heart muscles, digestive muscles, etc.), potassium plays a major role in proper heart function. Similar to the other electrolytes, a potassium deficiency can cause muscle weakness, cramping, and abnormal heart rhythms.
You can find potassium in:
- Winter Squash
- Orange Juice
By incorporating whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean sources of protein, and adequate water, most of us can meet our electrolyte needs. Be sure to drink water before, during, and after your workouts to ensure proper hydration, energy, and muscle function. A balanced post-workout meal or snack can easily replace lost electrolytes and aid in recovery.