Calcium, potassium and sodium are all essential and familiar nutrients, typically entering our bodies in the form of milk, bananas, and salt. The larger group of nutrients that includes all three of these is called electrolytes - a buzzword in health and exercise circles, but not necessarily a well-understood term beyond some sports drink branding.
So, what are they, who needs them and what's the best way to get them?
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Who Needs Electrolytes?
When electrolytes first broke onto the mainstream sports and fitness scene, they were regarded as something primarily for athletes. It became common practice to replenish electrolytes after a hard workout or intense game.
In reality, every human requires electrolytes to function, not just professional competitors. While it's true that those who exert themselves strenuously need to pay extra attention to ensure they are meeting their body’s needs, everyone must have basic levels of electrolytes in order to survive.
What Are Electrolytes?
Scientifically, electrolytes are ions, or particles that carry a charge - hence the “electro-” part of their name. These minerals dissolve in water and keep the body in balance. Electrical pulses run through your nerves, instructing your body to trigger muscle contractions.
Often when we think of muscle contractions, we picture someone running or lifting weights, and electrolytes are absolutely required to perform these tasks. But every heartbeat is also a muscle contraction.
In addition, to keeping your heart beating, electrolytes also help to maintain your body temperature, aid digestion, assist your memory, and interpret data you gather with your senses, in addition to many other essential bodily functions. Even if you don’t exercise or play sports, electrolytes are a highly important part of your diet.
How Do You Get Electrolytes?
Fortunately, you don’t need to chug Gatorade to keep your heart beating. Since "electrolytes" is just the name for a category of minerals, you can break it down into more easily accessible nutrients. The main electrolytes are sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium - you’ve likely heard of all of them, and chances are you're already consuming them in good quantities.
Sodium and chloride together make NaCl, which is the chemical notation for table salt. Many people have too much salt in their diet, which can lead to hypertension. Salt causes the body to retain water, which elevates blood pressure.
However, there is a minimum amount of salt required to function, so eliminating it entirely from your diet would result in a severe electrolyte imbalance.
Potassium, like all electrolytes, helps to regulate the heartbeat and muscles. Bananas are a widely-known source of potassium, although a cup of yogurt or three ounces of halibut each contain more potassium than the fruit. Other sources of potassium include baked sweet potatoes, winter squash, white beans, broccoli, orange juice pistachios, and cantaloupe.
Magnesium is found in the highest quantities in green, leafy vegetables. A cup of spinach provides almost half of your daily requirement.
After you eat the spinach, treat yourself to a square of dark chocolate for another quarter of your magnesium intake. You can also turn to almonds, pumpkin seeds or yogurt to increase your magnesium levels.
Calcium is housed in dairy products, with some of the highest percentages found in milk and yogurt. What may surprise you, however, is that a cup of cooked kale contains similar amounts of calcium, as do sardines. Even if you follow a dairy-free diet, it is more than possible to meet your calcium needs.
Your daily intake of these five minerals, as well as other trace minerals needed in tiny quantities, will supply your body with the electrolytes you need for optimal function and wellness. But if they can all be found in your diet, why do sports drinks even exist?
Are Sports Drinks Necessary?
The simple answer is, yes and no.
Humans survived for millions of years before the invention of Gatorade, so strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary. However, electrolyte-replenishing drinks provide a quick and convenient way to restore your body's levels when they are depleted due to exertion, illness or alcohol.
When you are dehydrated from sweating, diarrhea, vomiting or any other reason, your body loses electrolytes. Most people aren’t keen on polishing off a spinach salad when they’re down with the flu. Instead, they can opt for a drink that will speed up the recovery process.
Gatorade and Powerade are two of the most widely available sports drinks, although there are many varieties. Children are often given Pedialyte when they are sick.
It is worth noting, though, that many of the drinks on the market contain high quantities of sugar and artificial dyes. If you are trying to avoid these additives but still want the benefits of an electrolyte boost, you can easily make a homemade electrolyte drink.
Use water, natural juice or coconut water as the base, and add a bit of sea salt, lemon juice and raw honey. You can find recipes online and customize as you like - add some lime or orange juice, put in some herbal tea or use real maple syrup instead of honey.
Electrolytes are critical for maintaining your body’s functions, but unless you’re an elite endurance athlete, your regular eating should provide plenty. They are found in many different foods and can be easily incorporated into a healthy diet.
For the times when your body is depleted of electrolytes, there are both commercial and homemade options for quickly replenishing them to help get your muscles performing at their best.