Electrolytes - What Are They?
I get a lot of questions from people: “should I take electrolytes?”, “what are electrolytes?” and “where do I get them?” Well, at the risk of getting too technical, electrolytes are essentially minerals and fluids in your body that affect how your body works in many ways, such as:
- Hydration – how much water is in your cells? Hydrated or dehydrated?
- Muscle function - ever had muscle or stomach spasms? Ouch!
- Brain function - some days you’re sharp; other days you’re fuzzy
- Mood - no need to feel grumpy when you can feel happy
- Organ efficiency - all things go through your liver and kidneys
- Acid levels in your body - feel the burn, or not. At least less
Electrolytes are lost through your sweat mostly. You also lose it in daily functions of going to the bathroom. You need to replace them both through the food that you eat but mostly by drinking fluids that have electrolytes in them. Plain water does not have electrolytes in it. Therefore those minerals need to be replaced and kept in balance.
The common electrolytes are:
- Calcium - critical for nerve impulses & muscle function ( not to mention bone and teeth health)
- Chloride - controls acid level in your cells
- Magnesium - helps balance normal nerve and muscle function
- Phosphorus - helps tissue growth and repair and cell energy
- Potassium - regulates heart rate and muscle function (the heart is a muscle after all)
- Sodium - controls your body's water content
So, you can see how these minerals are so important to our day-to-day functions, let alone if we start adding exercise and performance into our day. If you think about how active children are in a day you can see how critical their need for correct mineral balance from nutrition and hydration is.
There has been some recent discussion about getting over hydrated and this has scared many people away from getting enough water on a daily basis. Where there have been cases of excessive hydration it is a difficult task to do that. Yet, having said that, being diligent with water intake is not quite good enough. That is why I recommend that for every 1.5-2 L of water that a person drinks, they then have 200-300 ml of electrolyte to keep minerals balanced. Keep in mind that if you are flushing your system of toxins really well with excellent water intake you're also flushing out minerals that are essential for good function. By adding an electrolyte you're creating balance to organs and muscle function as well as keeping yourself well hydrated. Hydration and electrolyte balance work very closely together and can help improve your coordination, energy, mood and clarity of thinking throughout the day. And that's without even getting your first coffee!
There are quite a few electrolyte drinks that are also tagged as “sport drinks” on the market. We need to be careful of the amount of sugar that is in the sport drinks. Also what is of significant note is that these are not casual drinks as a replacement for water or natural juices. Sport drinks are designed to replace the minerals that you have lost while you are sweating (exercising, physical labour or hot temperatures). They are not a "recreational drink". Just cracking open a sport drink because you like the taste will create electrolyte imbalance and can also cause issues and reactions that you do not want. Added liver and kidney stress directly affects the suppleness of your connective tissue! And sugar crashes can play havoc with mood and energy after drinking what you don't need.
So, read the labels and see how much sugar is in the drink. Less is better and in fact I will always get my athletes, and my son too, to dilute (or cut) the sport drink in a ratio of 1/2 water + 1/2 sport drink. At the end of the day, the drink serves a function and isn't supposed to taste like a non-carbonated soft drink. I completely understand that a "cut" sport drink doesn't taste as good but it works better! If you have a sugary sport drink you risk stomach cramps, and in some cases, diarrhea. I'm guessing that's not the result you're looking for!
There are some good products in the market. Be aware of what you're putting into your body. Many of the best electrolytes are formulated for children or as replacement from being sick with the flu. Also, good taste is not an indicator of a good product. Since good electrolytes are a blend of sugars and salts they will often have a different flavour than sugary drinks.
We all need a little balance in life and a good electrolyte product in moderation can provide that for our bodies!
Author - Rich Hesketh
Rich graduated from McMaster University with a Bachelor of Physical Education. He was a Canadian National Track & Field team member for nine years and won the 1988 Canadian Decathlon Championships going on to represent Canada in the Francophone, Commonwealth, and Pan American Games. Through all of Rich's personal triumphs he honed his technical teaching skills and turned them into a professional athletic training career working with the NHL's best for 20 years. His knowledge is still sought out by teams and individual elite athletes across the world from the NBA, LPGA, MLB, and universities. To see his full bio and turn yourself into an elite athlete visit his webpage at www.richhesketh.com