Electrolytes: A Matter of Life & Death
What they are, why they matter, and how to get enough.
A lot of people understand that electrolytes are related to hydration but there's a lot of confusion as to what they are and what they do in the body.
From hardcore endurance athletes to desk jockeys that morph into weekend warriors come Friday afternoon, we all rely on electrolytes to prevent muscle cramps, reduce fatigue and facilitate muscle movement. People who eat a low-carb diet have an especially unique need for electrolytes to avoid what's commonly referred to as the keto-flu.
This article is going to cover what electrolytes are, what they do, and why they matter. We'll also provide some practical advice as to how much you should consume and show you what supplementation pitfalls to avoid!
What would you risk for electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals that you couldn't survive without. In fact, all mammals rely on sodium and other electrolytes for survival. You'd be shocked to see the lengths to which some animals go to get them. Just check out the video above to see how ibexes risk life and limb for a little salt.
Electrolytes get their "superheroesque" name because they actually conduct electrical charges in the body via the nervous system.
This is oversimplified but electrolytes are kinda like powerlines in the body that conduct electricity from one place to another making it possible for the lights to stay on.
They also help strengthen bones, regulate fluid balance, and produce energy.
Sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, are all electrolytes. Today we'll cover sodium, potassium, and magnesium because these are the ones people tend to be the most deficient in.
Sodium is an essential electrolyte that's responsible for...
- Regulating fluid balance (blood flow)
- Regulating blood pressure
- Conducting nerve impulses
- Helping increase the absorption of various nutrients in the gut
Salty Trivia: People commonly think of salt and sodium as the same thing but that's not always the case. Table salt, chemically NaCl, is a sodium (Na) molecule attached to a chloride (Cl) molecule. Sodium can be attached to other molecules though and not all "salts" contain sodium. According to Britannica, salt consists of the positive ion (cation) of a base and the negative ion (anion) of an acid. A common example of a sodium-free salt is potassium chloride (KCl). Remember, unless you're talking about table salt, the word "salt" doesn't necessarily mean sodium.
Debunked: Sodium = Poor Heart Health
Sodium is a controversial electrolyte due to its association with high blood pressure. For years, sodium was heavily vilified by the FDA which is why it's common to see foods with "low sodium" emphasized. The US government's recommendation is to limit sodium intake to 2.3 grams per day to reduce the risk of high blood pressure or hypertension.
While this recommendation is adequate for people who have what's referred to as salt sensitivity or an impaired ability to excrete sodium, new scientific evidence has rendered it obsolete for those with normal health.
In a study of 2,632 normal blood pressure individuals, sodium intake of above 21/2 grams per day actually resulted in lower blood pressure.
In another 2011 study, 28,880 individuals were tracked for over seven years and researchers found that counter to the US government recommendation, those who limited sodium to under 3 grams per day suffered more cardiac-related events than those who consumed between 4-6 grams of sodium per day.
In short, sodium isn't the villain we thought it was and new studies are showing that a sodium consumption of around 5 grams per day seems to be a more optimal amount for the person without any abnormal medical issues affecting sodium levels.
The US government is typically the last to the party when it comes to updating their health recommendations so time will tell whether the FDA will update its stance on this.
Now that we've addressed sodium and the heart, we'll discuss the other electrolytes.
Potassium and sodium go together like peanut butter & jelly. Together they...
- Help conduct nerve impulses
- Balance blood flow through the vessels
- Maintain healthy blood pressure with potassium balancing out the blood pressure raising effects of sodium
- Decrease risk of stroke
Potassium doesn't get the attention it deserves though. Solid evidence has been gathered to show that higher potassium intakes help to mitigate high blood pressure or hypertension but less than 3% of Americans consume the FDA-recommended amount of 4.7 grams per day and in this case, the FDA recommendation seems to be more accurate.
It may be necessary to supplement potassium in your diet to reach optimal levels, especially if you're engaging in physical activity. That being said, it's always good to try to get what you need from whole foods, and potassium is found in fruits and vegetables. A few sources rich in potassium include:
- Beans & Lentils
- Dried apricots
- Sweet potato
Fun Fact: Most people are deficient in magnesium but it's not fun for them.
Magnesium has gotten a reputation as being a relaxation or anxiety-reducing mineral due so for those who could benefit from that...ie. Everyone... it's worth paying attention to.
Magnesium also aids with.
- Muscle contractions
- Bone strength
- Creates energy via ATP
- Regulates blood sugar.
You may need to supplement magnesium in your diet but the go-to dietary sources of magnesium are dark leafy greens like spinach and chard and seeds and nuts such as pumpkin seeds and almonds can also be good sources.
Common Causes of Electrolyte Deficiency
Typically, electrolytes go out of the body when you sweat and when you use the bathroom and come into the body through diet and supplementation.
There are certain situations and lifestyles that either cause too many electrolytes to leave the body or too little to enter.
#1 Dietary Deficiencies
Sodium deficiency is most common with people who eat generally healthy foods. That's because packaged and processed foods contain plenty of sodium, but whole foods typically don't. This means that you'll need to put the salt shaker to use otherwise you may be sodium deficient.
Getting enough potassium and magnesium comes from eating plenty of leafy greens, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits. It's not hard to understand why people eating a modern western diet are most commonly deficient in potassium and magnesium as these foods rarely reach the plate.
#2 Too Much H2O
A common mistake people make is to overwater without replenishing electrolytes. Proper hydration happens when water and electrolytes are combined. You'll recall that electrolytes leave the body with urination, so when you drink lots of water you push electrolytes out of the body. This can cause hyponatremia with symptoms such as cramps, fatigue, and in severe cases, seizures, brain damage, and death. Water is life, just don't forget to replenish electrolytes through food or supplementation too.
#3 Low Carb | Keto Diets
Keto-type diets are typically low in sodium and other electrolytes because of dietary restrictions. You're sacrificing processed foods, most potassium-rich fruits, and even some vegetables. Besides dietary limitations, a low-insulin state sends a single to the kidneys to push more sodium out of the body. New keto dieters often complain of flu-like symptoms which are caused in part by low electrolyte levels in the body. For these reasons, electrolyte supplementation is a must for a keto lifestyle.
Electrolyte Supplementation Pitfalls
Electrolyte supplementation can be a great habit to develop but you have to be mindful of where you get your electrolytes and what you're getting with them.
Although you can get electrolyte capsules, the most common form of electrolyte supplementation is through hydration drinks & drink mixes but these often contain tons of sugar and additives. Most widely available hydration drinks are total garbage for athletes and even more so for the average person. To read our article on how Gatorade Poisoned the World, click here.
In most cases, it's best to choose zero sugar electrolyte drinks that do not contain any artificial ingredients or additives.
For a great electrolyte drink that checks all the boxes, plus contains a splash of protein to help you build lean muscle and crush cravings, check out ProLoco!