I sweat a lot. (What a way to open a blog post!) I’ve always been a heavy sweater, and whether it’s in a hot yoga class or a Texas summer run, I’ll often lose a few pounds of water in an extra sweaty workout (you can measure this, if you want, by weighing yourself naked before a workout, holding your full water bottle if you’re going to drink anything, then weighing yourself again, naked and with the partially empty water bottle, after the workout). I feel the need for electrolyte replacement so deeply after this type of workouts, and without adequate electrolytes, not only does my exercise performance suffer, but I often feel lightheaded, fatigued, and “off,” and sometimes I’ll get a headache.
So, for me, electrolyte replacement is essential. But if you’re not a heavy sweater or intense exerciser, do you need them, too? And what are electrolytes in the first place? What are their benefits? I’ve got all this and more in today’s blog post, so read on!
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that have an electric charge. They help send electrical signals throughout your brain and body, and ensure than many bodily functions run optimally. They do everything from helping with muscle contractions to maintaining proper fluid balance to balancing pH levels throughout the body. We ingest them through food and drink, and our kidneys help filter them into our bloodstream. We lose them regularly through sweat and urine, though they can also be lost via vomiting and diarrhea.
What are the health benefits of electrolytes?
Overall, because they are critical for literally hundreds of functions in the body, a proper electrolyte balance just helps us feel our best. Feeling more energized, performing better in workouts, having better cognitive function, and staying properly hydrated are just some of the many benefits of having adequate electrolytes on board.
Here are some specific benefits of some of the 6 most important electrolytes in our bodies:
- Potassium: helps stabilize blood pressure. Supports heart health and reduces risk of heart disease. Stablizies pH levels. Promotes muscle mass. Found in bananas, spinach, beans, lentils, and sweet potatoes.
- Magnesium: improves sleep time and efficiency. Reduces anxiety and promotes calmness. Supports brain function and cognition. Reduces inflammation. Reduces muscle tension. Found in nuts, seeds, chocolate, avocados, leafy greens, and beans.
- Calcium: Great for bone health. Helps convert tryptophan to melatonin to promote quality of sleep. Found in leafy greens, almonds, sardines, yogurt, dairy, and kefir.
- Sodium: Critical for muscle and nerve function. Controls blood pressure, blood volume, and fluid balance. Found in moderation in some fruits and vegetables, pickles, sauerkraut, and salt, but most comes in the unnatural format from processed foods.
- Phosphate: supports bone and teeth formation and strength. Supports energy production. Found in milk, egg yolks, and chocolate.
- Chloride: supports optimal fluid balance. Found in tomatoes, celery, olives, seaweed.
What are some initial signs of electrolyte imbalance?
People experience symptoms of electrolyte imbalance differently, but here are a few of the telltale signs:
- Fatigue or low energy after a workout (rather than that “runner’s high,” you feel like you need a nap)
- Headache, especially post-workout or a low-grade headache that persists all day after a workout
- Muscle cramps or spasms, often occurring during or after a workout, or at night while sleeping
- Nausea or constipation, which could be caused by many other things, but are often symptoms of electrolyte imbalance
- Blood pressure changes, if you monitor this regularly
- Dizziness, especially during or after a workout
- Dehydration, which can lead to mood swings, fatigue, headache, lack of focus, brain fog, cravings, delayed reaction times, and more
What are the longer-term effects of electrolyte imbalance?
Because electrolytes are critical to so many bodily functions, if our electrolytes are imbalanced over the long term, we can experience such side effects as:
- Lower neuroplasticity and cognitive function. Magnesium in particular helps the brain continue improving, even as we age. In fact, studies show that optimal magnesium levels could reverse brain aging by over 9 years, and decrease the risk of dementia!
- Chronic fatigue. If your body is consistently off balance with electrolytes, you will feel chronically fatigued, low energy, and a potential sense of malaise.
- Sleep issues. I’ve spoken with many people who have muscle cramps at night stemming from electrolyte imbalance, and this often wakes them up at night. But even if you’re not woken up by cramping, electrolyte imbalance can impede quality of sleep.
- Decreased heart health. Research shows that long-term electrolyte imbalance can dampen heart health, nervous system function, and more.
Do you need electrolytes?
The average American, who unfortunately doesn’t get much exercise, can get plenty of electrolytes through a healthy, balanced diet. Just a few of the many foods high in electrolytes are avocados, dark leafy greens, kelp and other seaweed, sauerkraut, and many fruits. However, variety is critical – just because you like avocados, for example, doesn’t mean you’re getting a full spectrum of electrolytes, so go for as many types of vegetables and fruits as possible.
However, if you are an intense sweater like me, if you exercise regularly for longer than an hour (or a shorter but very intense burst), or if you spend a lot of time in the heat, I highly recommend supplementing with electrolytes.
What is the best way to get electrolytes?
If you think you’d benefit from including some supplemental electrolytes, don’t turn to Gatorade or Powerade. They do contain helpful electrolytes, but they also contain lots of unnecessary and even harmful ingredients, like sugar (or artificial sweeteners in the “zero” or “diet” varieties), artificial colorings (which have been linked to neurological issues and more), and suboptimal preservatives and flavorings.
Instead, I recommend a natural electrolyte supplement, sweetened with stevia (or monk fruit or unsweetened), and colored (if at all) with beets or other natural coloring.
My personal favorite is Ultima Replenisher, and I drink at least one serving of this with each tough workout I do (I like lemonade, Raspberry, Cherry Pomegranate, and Watermelon best!). When I am exercising intensely or sweating profusely, I might have up to 4 servings per day!
Another that I have my eye on is Nectar , which uses organic ingredients – a definite plus! The formulation is new and is constantly undergoing improvements, so the taste and consistency are not yet quite as smooth as Ultima, but the ingredients are even healthier!
Other popular options are:
- LMNT, which I only recommend for people who are extreme sweaters (like me!) or are low on serum sodium, or have other conditions like POTS and need more sodium
- Nuun, which isn’t my favorite taste but is healthy if you like an effervescent option
- Liquid IV (beware! Too much added sugar!).
Now it’s your turn … Do you take electrolytes? If not, do you want to try them after reading this?