Electrolytes: what are they + why are they important?
From the time we were 8 years old on the soccer field, we were told how important electrolytes are for your overall health and recovery. But why exactly are they important and what are the best ways to ensure we’re getting enough of them (spoiler alert: it’s not from Gatorade!!)? Let’s break it all down!!
It’s ELECTRIC! (literally)
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge and are found in your blood, urine and sweat. They’re vital to many processes that take place in the body so it’s important to get an adequate amount of them through your diet. There are several electrolytes in the body including sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, calcium, bicarbonate and phosphate. However, most people tend to be deficient in sodium, potassium and magnesium.
Let’s take a look at some of the important roles electrolytes play in our bodies:
NERVOUS SYSTEM + MUSCLE FUNCTION:
The brain is constantly sending electrical signals through your nerve cells to communicate with the cells throughout your body. Without the proper balance of the electrolytes sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, both nerve and muscle function can be thrown into disarray and eventually lead to some serious problems.
Sodium gives the inside of the nerve cell an electrical charge, potassium neutralizes the charged cell to establish resting state and magnesium prompts the activation of enzymes that control the flow of sodium and potassium into and out of the nerve cells.
Calcium allows muscle fibers to slide together and move over each other when the muscle shortens and contracts and magnesium allows the muscles to relax after contraction.
PROPER HYDRATION + BALANCED PH LEVELS
Water must be kept in the right amounts both inside and outside of each cell in the body in order to maintain homeostasis. Electrolytes play a role in this balance on both the intracellular (fluid inside the cells) and extracellular (fluid outside of the cells) levels through a process known as osmosis. Osmosis is a process where water moves through the wall of a cell membrane from a dilute solution (more water, less electrolytes) toward a more concentrated solution (less water, more electrolytes). This prevents cells from becoming too full and bursting or shriveling up from dehydration
Electrolytes also help keep your blood at a stable and healthy pH. Healthy human blood is slightly alkaline and has a pH of 7.3-7.45 If electrolyte levels are imbalanced, these pH levels will fluctuate, causing a wide array of health issues. Some of these conditions include; metabolic acidosis which is when too much acid is produced in the body and can cause symptoms ranging from rapid heart beat, confusion, extreme tiredness to even shock and death. On the flip side, unbalanced pH levels can also cause Alkalosis which is when your pH is above 7.45. This condition can cause symptoms ranging from nausea and numbness to dizziness, difficulty breathing and, in severe cases, can even lead to comas.
On top of all that, electrolytes also play a role in nutrient absorption, DNA synthesis, immune health, hormonal balance and may have antidepressant effects as well.
So, I think it’s safe to say, electrolytes are V important but how do we know we’re getting enough of them, what causes a deficiency and what are some of the best ways to include them in our diets?
Most foods that make up the Standard American Diet are packaged and processed containing extremely high amounts of sodium while lacking the other essential nutrients. Aside from eating too many processed foods, other situations that can cause an electrolyte imbalance include being sick with symptoms that cause fluid loss, such as diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive sweating; certain medications or diuretics; kidney disorders,malabsorption of nutrients in your gut and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding your requirements increase.
There are many nutrient dense foods that not only give you all the electrolytes you need, but you also get vitamins and numerous other health-protective compounds. Some of these foods include: watermelon, beets and beet greens, cucumbers, butternut squash, leafy green vegetables,chia and pumpkin seeds, avocados, scallops, cod, lentils, broccoli, salmon, black beans and bananas. Keep in mind, a whole foods, nutrient dense diet will naturally be lower in sodium so do not fear the salt shaker! Research actually shows that higher sodium intake is more beneficial to heart health than lower intakes. The caveat being that your sodium intake is in balance with your magnesium, phosphorus and calcium intake.
When it comes to supplementing with electrolytes, most people think Gatorade and other sports drinks however, these drinks are filled with harmful ingredients and sugar. Gatorade contains over 20g of sugar per serving (one bottle is usually over 2 servings so you do the math!! YIKES!) and also contain artificial sweeteners and colors that have been linked to obesity, diabetes, behavior problems, cancer and other health issues…no thank you! If you want to up your electrolyte game, do it the natural way with coconut water, adding a little sea salt, cucumber and lemon to your water or choosing to purchase a clean supplement such as LMNT or Natural Vitality Magnesium Calm.
Now get out there and HYDRATE baby!!!