DAY 57: Electro-what?

Author: thedancingj /

Happy Friday, rock stars!  We are now entering the ninth week of the 101 day challenge, and today is the ninth Friday!  (Wow, nine weeks.  Can anyone think of something else that's nine weeks long?!  Nine weeks can go by fast.)

By this point, I'm sure you've all settled into some sort of food and beverage routine that keeps you from feeling like death warmed over after sweating profusely for 90 minutes every day.  So let's talk about this for a minute...

Everyone's probably heard that you have to "replace your electrolytes."  And I think that everyone also has the vague idea that "electrolytes" are things that come out of your body when you sweat, along with a few toxins and a lot of water.  This is pretty much accurate, but let's get a little more specific.

By definition, an electrolyte is just any substance that dissolves in solution and conducts electricity.  In our bodies, the most important electrolytes include sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca 2+), and magnesium (Mg 2+).  According to this nice Medical News Today article that I found, our muscles and neurons can be thought of as the electric tissues of the body.  A muscle contraction needs the right levels of calcium, sodium, and potassium to be present.  If those electrolytes are out of balance, then the muscles become weak or the contractions become severe (i.e. cramps).  The level of electrolyte in the blood tends to change when the hydration (the level of water in the body) is altered.  After you sweat, you lose a lot of water and a lot of electrolytes.  If you drink a lot of water, but don't consume any electrolytes, then you'll end up with lower electrolyte levels than when you started.  (This is why it can be dangerous to drink a LOT - like many, many liters - in one sitting.  It dilutes your electrolyte levels so quickly that your kidneys can't keep up, and it can cause the same symptoms as severe dehydration, up to and including death!)

Now in our case, under normal conditions, we're just worried about preventing mild imbalances.  If you keep your water and electrolytes at a good level, then you can sweat for hours a day and never have a problem.  So how do we do this?

Sports drinks such as Gatorade or Vitamin water are an obvious source of electrolytes.  They're fast, convenient, and effective.  You can grab one from the 7-11 and drink it on your way home.  Easy!  Coconut water is a great natural alternative which has less sugar and no artificial ingredients.  (I like Zico best.)  However, these are still all pretty sugary, and there are plenty of reasons why a person might not want to add more sugar to her diet.  So what else can you do?

How about eating some leafy greens?  Eating some fruit?  Adding some sea salt to your food?  Eating beefy jerky?!  (Apparently beef jerky is a great source of electrolytes, but is not recommended as a health food due to some of its other contents.  Who knew?)  Sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are all minerals that occur naturally in tons of foods.  (What did you think sweat people did before the invention of Gatorade?)  This solution is easy to overlook, but in my opinion it's the best one, because it has so many positive side effects.  When you eat well and include plenty of high-water fruit and veggies in your diet, then you don't need to rely so heavily on supplements.

Here's a quick list of some natural sources for various electrolytes (taken from various online medical sources).

Potassium:  Avocado, tomatoes, spinach, cantaloupe, kiwi, lima beans, milk, winter squash, oranges, fish, poultry, and of course bananas.

Calcium:  Broccoli, kale (and other leafy greens), milk, yogurt, tofu, almonds, chickpeas, oats, sardines (ew!) and cheese

Sodium:  It's easy to get too much sodium from highly processed foods.  But if you're eating lots of natural foods, it's usually a good idea to add some sea salt to your meal to keep the sodium up.  My other favorite sources of sodium are salt and vinegar Kettle Chips, pickles, and Cheeze-its.

There's also an electrolyte supplement called Elete Electrolyte Drink Mix that I'll use in a pinch, if I feel like my levels are falling low.  You can get it in a little pocket-sized bottles, and it's a super-concentrated electrolyte liquid that you can add to any beverage.  It has a little bit of a mineral-y taste in plain water, but it's not bad, and if you add to to a smoothie or juice you don't taste it very much.  (I've even hidden it in hot chocolate... yum.  I don't worry about my sugar intake too much.)

I hope you've found this little science report useful.  I'm obviously not a doctor or nutritionist, but I think most of this is good common sense.  Like Michael Pollan says, we're better off the more we think about eating food rather than "nutrients."  (Grocery stores are ridiculous.  Don't add fiber to water, just eat some whole wheat bread!  A topic for another day.)  Everyone have a delicious and sweaty weekend!


Heidi said...

This is a great topic and post, thank you! What about "Cell Food?" Have you ever tried this lovely product before? It works similar to gatorade and other artificial electrolyte replacing drinks and comes in a concentrated form that you can add to your water either throughout the day or all at once in your water bottle, which is what I do. It has a lemon/lime flavor and has lots of nutrients, naturally, that you can intake during your intense Bikram workout. I found out about it through a friend that went to another studio and am hooked! It's easy to carry with me and add to my water before class. Let me know your thoughts! -Heidi.

Yolk E said...

A science-y post by a science-y gal! I love it! I am endlessly fascinated by how the body works and how we can make it operate more smoothly. I'll have to check out the Elete mix--thanks for the rec. I am tired of the Emergen-C fake sugary taste!

Johan said...

Hmm, 9 weeks. No can't think of anything Juliana related that's 9 weeks and starts in less than 8 weeks. ;-)

I've been informed that beer is a great source of potassium, but it falls to the wayside for the same reasons as beef jerky.

As for electrolyte supplements I currently use elctro-c. Obviously trying to compete with emergen-c but it's way more neutral in flavour, supposedly it's richer in electrolytes and comes in big jar instead of sachets. On the downside it's got less vitamin b.

Johan said...

This article might be worth considering as well.

thedancingj said...

Heidi - Never tried it. Sounds yummy. :)

E - I could just never develop a taste for Emergen-C... the only fizzy drinks I like are ginger ale, sparkling wine, and beer. (Not all at once.)

Johan - Yeah, I've been seeing the studies along those lines, especially the ones that say anti-oxidant supplements are not helpful at all. I think it's kind of hilarious. I always suspected that the success of some of those really popular supplements was just a triumph of advertising over science...

a. said...

hey dancingj - just wanted to say thanks for this post! i am one of those yogis who tends to shortcut to feeling more perky with coconut water, coke, etc. there are times when sugar helps :) but i need to be more dedicated to healthy eating. thanks for a more sciencey look at electrolytes - going to go drink some milk now :)

thedancingj said...

Not that I have anything AGAINST sugar, of course... (I'm thinking some mint chip ice cream sounds REALLY good right now...) It's just nice to know all your options! ;-)

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