Nancy Teeter, RDN
Does this scenario sound familiar? You are out on the tennis court, pickleball court or the golf course and your partner says, “I need my electrolytes.” Huh? You think to yourself, “What are electrolytes…do I need them, too?” As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I can answer these questions and others you may not have thought to ask.
Simply stated, electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. The electrolytes in your body include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium. In previous articles, I’ve explained why potassium and magnesium are vital to your health and in this article I will shed some light on the other electrolytes.
Why are electrolytes important?
In the human body, electrolytes are involved in hydration, blood pressure, nerve and muscle function, tissue repair and blood acidity.
Calcium, sodium and potassium are the three most important electrolytes. Your muscles need them to contract. When these electrolytes get out of balance, you can experience muscle weakness or muscle spasms.
Another symptom of electrolyte imbalance is dizziness. Symptoms usually occur after we profusely sweat for more than 60 minutes. The imbalance can often be due to dehydration. That is why it is important to replace sweat with plain water during breaks in your activity. The more you sweat, the more water you need; however, if you take in too much water without replacing electrolytes, it can actually worsen the imbalance. Hyperhidrosis can sometimes be the cause of excessive sweating and can often lead to low self-esteem, however, there are treatments available for this.
How do you lose electrolytes?
Your perspiration contains a number of minerals, but your sweat contains greater amounts of sodium and chloride than other minerals. That is why sweat tastes salty. The more you sweat, the greater the loss of electrolytes. If you feel faint after engaging in strenuous activity, this could be why.
What’s the best way to replenish electrolytes?
We get electrolytes from foods. A healthy, balanced diet generally provides more than enough electrolytes for an ordinary day, but exercising strenuously in hot conditions creates a unique situation. If you have experienced the symptoms outlined above, then it may be prudent to replenish electrolytes during exercise*, and I encourage you to turn to real food first.
First, in addition to water, you need to replace lost sodium chloride. A dill pickle or a 6-ounce can of tomato juice can provide both fluid and salt. Personally, I enjoy some small tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt. For both calcium and sodium, you could munch on some kale chips. After your workout, you can enjoy a banana for the potassium and some yogurt for the calcium.
My advice regarding sports drinks and electrolyte tablets.
Stick with water to hydrate and save the sports drinks for your next marathon. Endurance athletes may need to take electrolyte tablets, but for most people reading this article, they are unnecessary.
*Always seek medical advice if symptoms persist. Also, you should always follow doctor’s orders regarding dietary levels of sodium and potassium.
Nancy Teeter, a SaddleBrooke resident, is a registered dietitian nutritionist