What Are Electrolytes, And Do I Really Need To Replenish Them On The Reg?

You don't need to chug sports drinks all the time.


Kasandra Brabaw |

In the past few years, a slew of “ionized” waters and beverages boasting electrolyte-enhanced formulas have hit the market, promising us that we’ll feel better and more energized if we drink them. They’re kind of like the healthier cousin of sports drinks for folks who don’t want their electrolytes swimming in sugar and artificial dye.

But the whole idea of electrolytes seems…hyped up? And, honestly, kind of vague. But if you’re a living, breathing human, and especially one who likes to work out, it’s pretty important that you understand what electrolytes are, and how they help your body do its thang. So read on.

What are electrolytes exactly?

Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, among others. “The concentration of these electrolytes ensure proper function in the cells of our bodies,” says Adena Neglia, an expert in sports nutrition with Brown and Medina Nutrition.

They help regulate nerve and muscle function, maintain a good balance of acids and bases, and keep our fluids balanced. “And they make sure that we are staying hydrated, especially if we’re active,” she says. If you don’t have the proper amounts of electrolytes, we can feel pretty crummy. We’re talking muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, confusion, headaches, and (in extreme cases) seizure or coma.

Watch: How To Know When It’s Time To Replace Electrolytes — And What To Use

It’s actually pretty damn easy to keep your electrolytes balanced.

That is, even without special drinks like enhanced waters. “If you’re someone who eats a well-rounded diet and doesn’t engage in a ton of physical activity, you likely meet your electrolyte needs through your diet,” says Lauren Cadillac, a dietitian who works in Manhattan.

You probably already know that bananas are a haven for potassium, but you can also find potassium in avocados, sweet potatoes, and spinach, Cadillac says. Calcium we get in dairy, salmon, seeds, and almonds. Magnesium is found in dark chocolate, avocados, nuts, and legumes (like peanuts and most beans). And sodium and chloride make up the substance we know as salt — so that’s basically in everything we eat.

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So for the most part, you don’t need to drink tons of electrolytes — at least, not most of the time.

“I always say to go with food first unless you are a very serious athlete,” says Neglia.

Unless you’re doing a serious workout, are severely hungover, or are sick, you can bet you’re getting enough electrolytes in your food. “Most of the time mineral intake is in excess of mineral needs,” Neglia says.

For the regular people out there who like to exercise but aren’t, say, training for an endurance event, here’s a little lesson: You only need to drink something like a sports drink or an enhanced water if you’re doing an intense workout that lasts longer than an hour, Neglia says. Or, if you’re exercising somewhere where it’s very hot, be it outdoors in warm weather or in a heated studio of sorts.

Why? You lose a bunch of electrolytes any time you sweat excessively, as your sweat contains some electrolytes. And, usually, it’s mostly sodium and chloride that come out, Neglia says. “Sodium concentrations in sweat vary from person to person,” she says. “If you’re a salty sweater, it shows up in a white residue on your clothes, which is salt that stays around after your sweat dries up.”

Salty sweaters have to worry more about electrolyte loss than people who don’t get that white residue on their clothes. For salty sweaters, it might be smart to pick up a sports drink or electrolyte water any time you expect to sweat a lot, even if you aren’t exercising — like if you plan to be outside for a long time on a hot day.

But the rest of us can stick to water to stay hydrated. Unless, of course, we’re losing electrolytes in other ways. “We can also lose electrolytes through our bowel movements, so if we are having diarrhoea (common with the flu or other illnesses), for example, it’s important that we’re replenishing the electrolytes lost,” Cadillac says.

So maybe skip the ginger ale next time you have diarrhoea and pick up an electrolyte water instead.

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Extra electrolytes *might* also help tone down a hangover, but don’t expect magical results.

The dehydration that occurs with drinking alcohol does deplete electrolytes, so replenishing them might help you feel better after a night out. But the issue is that there are probably other reasons you feel crummy from drinking, aside from the dehydration aspect, so an electrolyte drink probably isn’t the magic cure to make you feel totally better.

“Try a coconut water or sports drink before bed. But, ideally, don’t overdo it with the alcohol.” Staying hydrated is most important to avoiding a pounding head the next morning, so Neglia suggests a glass of regular water between each drink.

Overall, though, there’s no real reason to drink a sports drink or electrolyte water every day just for kicks.

They aren’t helping your body, and might even be hurting you — because it ispossible to overdo it on electrolytes. “So many of these drinks are also fortified with extra vitamins, and if you’re also taking a multivitamin you’re getting 2,000 or 5,000 percent of your daily need each day,” Neglia says. It’s not a big deal if you have one drink a day (but keep in mind, they might also have a ton of sugar), but you don’t want to make these beverages or supplements (i.e. powders or dissolvable tablets) a thing you’re doing all day every day.

For some of the electrolytes, overdoing it isn’t too bad. But others can cause problems if your levels are too high. “Excessive consumption of potassium can lead to hyperkalemia, which can lead to nausea, irregular pulse, heart arrhythmia, and can impact liver function,” Cadillac says. “Too much sodium can lead to hypernatremia, which can lead to vomiting, diarrhoea, and dizziness.”

Suddenly, the health factor of “ionized” electrolyte waters doesn’t sound so healthy. They can be healthy, of course, but only if you really need them. And most of us don’t. “Like most labelling, added electrolytes are a good marketing tactic,” Cadillac says. And not a ton more than that.

This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com

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