Electrolytes, what are they, and how to make the most of it

Ella Rauen-Prestes, The Stanford Nutritionist, interviewed by the Stylist Magazine:

  • What are electrolytes? What do they do? Play an important role in keeping your brain, heart, muscles, and nerves healthy

Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge in our body, like sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate. They are vital for health and survival, and spark cell function throughout the body. They support hydration, help the body produce energy and are also responsible for brain function and stimulating muscle contractions, including those that keep your heart beating.

 

  • How do we tell if we’re deficient? Headaches, dizziness, exercise-associated muscle cramps, and extreme fatigue

The level of an electrolytes in the body can become too high or too low, leading to an imbalance. Important electrolytes are lost in sweat during exercise for example, including sodium and potassium, and must be replaced to maintain healthy levels.

Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance can include twitching, weakness, seizures and heart rhythm disturbances, weakness, changes in blood pressure, numbness, muscle spasm, fatigue, irritability, nausea, dry mouth or throat and many others (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7965369/).

 

  • Why are they important for exercise? How do they impact our performance?

Muscles needs electrolytes. When these substances become imbalanced, it can lead to either muscle weakness or excessive contraction. Even the heart, being a muscle, needs it, so electrolytes are needed for any exercise, from light walks to heavy weightlifting, we depend on them.

When you sweat, you do not just lose water, but also electrolytes, the minerals that help deliver fluids to the cells that need them and are essential to everything from muscle health to brain function.

The goal should be to keep the electrolytes at healthy levels during exercise. When they are at the right level, you ensure that your body can absorb and use whatever fluids you take in, your vital organs function properly, and you get the most out of each workout.

 

  • How can we top up our electrolyte levels? What foods have electrolytes in

 

I am originally from Brazil, and over there we have a secret to top up electrolytes: coconut water. It is a miracle one. Brazilians give coconut water even to babies, in their baby bottles, during summer, to make sure they stay hydrated. We’re obsessed with it, we make ice out of coconut water to put into everything, it’s a great trick.

 

In terms of food, a healthy balanced diet can help with electrolytes, foods like spinach, kale, broccoli, beans, potatoes, nuts, berries, tomatoes, milk, olives, chicken, fish, avocadoes, bananas (this one is the electrolyte superstar), and lots of water should be more than enough to keep on going. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1895359/)

 

Beware of the sports drinks. They contain less sugar than soft drinks and energy drinks, but still contain lots of simple sugars. Drinking too many of these, especially when not performing vigorous exercise, can increase the risk of overweight/obesity and other health problems. Let us also remember that the over consumption of electrolytes also causes imbalances and can be dangerous. For athletes, supplements, energy drinks and performance snacks can play a role, if they prefer, but paying £2.99 for a sugary sports drink is not a must. A few studies published in 2012 by the British medical Journal (https://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4737) investigated the correlation between sports drinks and performance, concluding that a balance diet and normal tap water is king.

 

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