August 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm 2 comments

What are electrolytes and how much do I need?

I think it’s safe to say that most people know that sodium is an electrolyte and we lose it when we sweat.  But what are other electrolytes, why are they important, and how do I replace the ones I lost during a work out?

Electrolytes are minerals in your blood that have an electric charge.  These charges control the flow of water in your body (blood pressure), muscle contractions (including the ever important heart beat!), nerve signaling, and the pH of your blood.  These minerals include calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and chloride.

We lose electrolytes in urine and in sweat.  We lose small amounts of potassium, magnesium, and calcium and larger amounts of chloride and sodium.  The rate of chloride and sodium lost in sweat varies by individual.  Hot weather creates greater losses of these two minerals.  Muscle cramps, hyponatremia (low blood sodium), and a higher risk of heat-related problems have been linked to large losses of chloride and sodium in sweat.

The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetic Association recommend including .5-.7g of sodium/liter of fluid for exercise lasting longer than one hour.  Sodium can increase the palatability of a drink, promote fluid retention, and thus reduce the risk of hyponatremia.  Increased palatability means you will drink more because it tastes good!  Sodium contained in sports drinks also makes you thirsty, causing you to feel the need to drink more.  In this situation, this is a good thing!

Replacing electrolytes lost during exercise is most important if you sweat a lot, lose a lot of sodium chloride in your sweat and if you participate in very long work outs or two-a-day practices!

A no-brainer solution is to consume sports drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade.  This summer I have noticed a lot of people are making their own sports drinks.  Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD has a recipe for a sports drink:

3 ½ cups water

½ cup orange juice

2 ½ tablespoons honey

¼ teaspoon salt

This makes four 8 ounce servings and has 50 calories, 14g carbohydrates and 160mg sodium.

Nancy Clark’s recipe is

¼ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup hot water

¼ cup orange juice (not concentrate) plus 2 Tablespoons lemon juice

3 ½ cups cold water

Nancy’s drink contains 50 calories, 12g carbohydrate and 110mg sodium.  Nancy encourages athletes to try diluting a variety of your favorite juices.

Coconut water is the “new” electrolyte replacement drink.

I enjoy a cold coconut water after a long hot yoga class.  Coconut water is a clear liquid that comes from the inside of young coconuts.  Coconut water contains sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and a small amount of carbohydrates.  However, coconut water contains only about 1/3 of the recommended amount of sodium and no chloride.  Unfortunately, according to an article in the Huffington Post, several coconut waters are claiming electrolyte content that isn’t actually there. A study conducted by Consumer Lab, a product testing company, has found that only one major brand contains the amount of electrolytes that their package claims to contain.  This brand is Zico.  Note on the Zico website they state that the potassium in their drink will reduce muscle cramping.  Muscle cramps are not a result of potassium lost in sweat, as very little potassium is lost in sweat.  Just an FYI regarding information provided on websites!


The simplest and most practical option for electrolyte replacement is a varied and balanced diet.  Most people will replenish their electrolytes from the meals they eat during the day.  Some athletes consume salted pretzels with water after a work out.  Others enjoy a bag of baked potato chips.

What is your favorite way to replace electrolytes?


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Meg  |  August 23, 2011 at 1:23 am

    My husband loves pretzels and water after he works out- while I like a piece of fruit and some sunflower butter!!


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