What's the Deal with Electrolytes?

Published: June 5th, 2013   |   Author: Jackie Gentilesco

They’re not just for sports drinks.

Whether you’re at the kids’ soccer game or on the elliptical, it seems like you can’t go anywhere without seeing colorful sports drinks. Electrolyte-enhanced “-ades” may seem like the ultimate thirst quencher, but what are they exactly, and what do they do for our bodies? 
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that are important for hydration and organ function. “[Their] main mechanism is to keep fluid balance in the cells, which keeps our cells and our organs functioning normally,” says Emily Edison, RD, ACSM-certified health fitness instructor and owner of Momentum Nutrition & Fitness in Seattle. 
When you drink water, electrolytes help hydration fluid enter cells. If you don’t have enough electrolytes in your system, your cells won’t be hydrated and you’ll feel parched, even if you’re drinking water. This lack of hydration can make your body feel overheated or uncomfortable during activity, and even stir up bigger issues, Edison says. If you’re constantly cruising around in a dehydrated state, you’re putting strain on your heart and kidneys, which may lead to organ malfunction, she says. Headaches, low energy, fatigue, irritability, and overeating are also common side effects of low electrolyte levels. We often confuse dehydration for hunger, Edison adds. So it’s important to drink water and supplement it with adequate electrolytes.
How Do You Get Them?
We tend to think about them in the athletic drinks category, but you probably eat them every day without realizing it. For optimum health, our main source of electrolytes should be solid food, not sugar-laden liquids.  “We need vitamins from our foods more than our drinks,” Edison says. “I think that people significantly underestimate the power of food as a source of electrolytes.” 
Calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium are all necessary electrolytes and, if you focus your diet on fresh fruits and veggies, you’re sure to get enough. Of all the electrolytes, potassium is the one most diets lack, so look for foods with at least 350 mg per serving. Amp up your electrolytes with these suggestions from Edison:

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Kale
  • Seafood
  • Coconut water
  • Dairy products, such as low-fat milk or yogurt.
  • Sports drinks, when exercising or exposed to hot weather for an hour or longer. Look for simple ingredients lists including sea salt, fruit juice, or natural sweeteners, Edison suggests.
  • Electrolyte powder, when exercising or exposed to hot weather for an hour or longer.

As for sodium, much of our daily intake tends to come from packaged foods, so you don’t need to try to add more to your diet. Most of us get almost double the recommended 1,500 to 2,300 mg of sodium a day set by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “Be mindful of how much salt you’re already getting from your diet,” Edison says. That doesn’t mean we should fear salt, though. It’s an essential electrolyte, in moderation. “If we have salt, it also increases our drive to drink,” so it may encourage us to drink more water, Edison says.
When You Need Electrolytes the Most
In the morning: “We definitely need to focus on hydration because we haven’t had anything to drink for hours,” Edison says. Eat a healthy, balanced breakfast and drink at least two cups of water. Throughout the day, aim to drink half your body weight (in ounces) of water, she suggests. So, if you weigh 135 pounds, try to drink approximately 67 ounces of water.

When you’re outside for over an hour: Whether you’re engaging in physical activity or spending time outside on a hot day, it’s important to keep electrolytes in balance. Powdered electrolyte supplements, coconut water, or sports drinks may be useful in this case. Or, pack something to eat with electrolytes in it, Edison suggests.

After you sweat: Post-workout, or when the weather is hot, electrolytes are important because you lose salt in your sweat. You may even see salt that’s dried on your skin after a particularly intense session. “It’s really important that you replace that sodium through food and replace the water that you lost through drinking water,” Edison says. After you work up a sweat, eat something that’s lightly seasoned with salt or have seafood, which contains naturally occurring sodium. Skip the packaged snacks, including salted nuts, which can rack up your sodium intake.

When you’re working out for an hour or more: Consider sipping on coconut water, an all-natural sports drink, or a powdered electrolyte supplement during or after rigorous exercise. “Nowadays, people are training harder, and sports drinks have become more useful,” Edison says. “If you’re working out for longer than an hour, you really need to take in carbs and electrolytes.” 
The Exercise Connection
“If you eat the right foods and properly hydrate, you will feel an increase in performance,” Edison says. If your diet lacks electrolytes, you may feel like a workout is harder than it is. When your electrolytes are balanced, exercise will feel easier and you won't have to work as hard to perform.

The Bottom Line
Keeping your electrolyte levels up is important for nourishing and hydrating your cells and for long-term health benefits. “If we keep our electrolytes in balance, it helps keep our cells and organs functioning normally,” Edison says. To get enough electrolytes, it’s all about “stretching your nutrition creativity,” she says. Whether that’s supercharging your cells with a kale-banana-avocado smoothie, or having some yogurt as a snack, think outside the sports drinks.
Related Links
Have a (Safe) Hot Workout
Your Low-Salt Strategy
Why You Should Skip Flavored Waters