We've all been there. You’re watching your favorite sporting event on TV when a Gatorade commercial comes on touting the all-powerful electrolyte! You’re told you need to replenish electrolytes in order to push yourself further and get the most out of your workouts. But what is an electrolyte and how exactly does it help you?
Electrolytes: The Brass Tacks
Put simply, electrolytes are salts. When salts are dissolved in fluid, they tend to break apart into their component ions. This breakdown creates an electrically-conductive solution. Any fluid that conducts electricity is known as an electrolyte solution - salt ions in this solution are commonly known as electrolytes. Your body already has many common electrolytes that serve many purposes. Most of them are important for balancing fluid levels between intracellular (inside the cell) and extracellular (outside the cell) environments. This balance is immensely important, as it affects hydration, muscle function, pH level and nerve impulses. Therefore, electrolytes have been proven to be immensely important to athletic performance, mental capacity and other vital activities.
Electrolyte Imbalance is Nasty Business
If you've ever felt a muscle cramp, you've experienced electrolyte imbalance. Your body needs additional electrolytes whenever you push yourself. Some of the most important electrolytes to your health are calcium, potassium and sodium. Deficiency in these may result in muscle weakness, muscle contraction and severe cramping. On the flip side, an excess of these can increase your risk for heart disease, raise your blood pressure and impact your energy. Luckily, electrolyte levels can be altered by food and water consumption. Staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet can help you maintain healthy levels.
The Big Three
There are many different electrolytes but the ones you need to pay particular attention to are: calcium, potassium and sodium. What does an imbalance in one of these three look like?
- Low Calcium Levels (hypocalcemia): Luckily, the American diet usually supplements around 80% of your daily calcium needs but many factors can affect your calcium levels. For example, if you're vitamin-d deficient (pay attention, ladies), this can lead to more issues with hypocalcemia. Studies have shown that up to 42% of adults are deficient in Vitamin D.
- High Calcium Levels (hypercalcemia): This is rare, but it can occur in the bodies of those suffering from various health issues including cancer, parathyroid issues, and Paget's disease.
- Low Potassium Levels (hypokalemia): Hypokalemia can appear in a number of ways. Those on ketogenic diets (low carb/high fat) are more likely to experience potassium deficiency, as are people with insulin issues, recent sickness and over-hydration.
- High Potassium Levels (hyperkalemia): If you're experiencing hyperkalemia, you should consult your doctor immediately. It can mean kidney problems or issues with the prescription drugs you're taking.
- Low Sodium Levels (hyponatremia): Hyponatremia can happen when you cut salt out of your diet, over-exercise, or over-hydrate. When large amounts of sodium-free fluids are consumed, it can flush your system of its sodium stores, causing confusion, headache, irritability, loss of appetite, etc.
High Sodium Levels (Hypernatremia): Hypernatremia can happen when you eat an unbalanced diet or you don't hydrate properly. High sodium levels can cause confusion, paralysis, seizures, etc.
Best Natural Source of Electrolytes
It shouldn't come as a surprise that electrolyte imbalance can be taken care of by reassessing your diet and making small changes to help your body. Improving your diet can do wonders to combat electrolyte imbalances. Canned tuna, beans, pickles, olives, and whole grain bread are good sources of natural electrolytes for sodium deficiencies. As for calcium, dairy products and dairy alternatives are a great place to start, and you can also look to leafy greens like spinach and kale. Many fruits and veggies are packed with potassium: spinach, bananas, avocado and sweet potatoes to name a few.