Chances are many of us have ran a race, competed in a sports game, or even had a tough workout, and after it was over, we were told to "replenish our electrolytes" But what exactly is an electrolyte?
We know we need them and they help with recovery, but if someone asked you what an electrolyte was, would you know the answer? Probably not. And you’re not alone—most people know they’re important but not what they are.
So what is an electrolyte? “Electrolytes are electrically charged particles—both positive and negative charge—responsible for many functions in the body,” explains Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, founder of Active Eating Advice, and nutrition consultant to the pros. “The seven major electrolytes in the body are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate and phosphate.”
Electrolytes are so important because they’re responsible for maintaining fluid balance both within and outside of cells, they help transport nutrients throughout the body, they control blood pressure, muscle relaxation and contraction, and nerve impulses. “They also help you maintain a ph-acid balance in your blood,” explains Bonci, “which is why they’re essential for everyone and not just athletes.”
With most things in life, needs vary from person to person, even when it comes to electrolytes, but everyone requires a certain amount daily. According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Dietary Reference Intakes, adequate daily intake suggestions are:
Those who deplete faster though will need more. Things like vigorous exercise, profuse sweating and taking certain medications can increase your needs. “Electrolytes are contained in fluid, so when we do anything that causes fluid loss we lose not only fluid but electrolytes as well,” explains Bonci.
Sodium is the main electrolyte lost in sweat, so your needs for it will definitely go up after an intense sweat session. “It may not be unusual for tennis players to lose up to 10,000 milligrams of sodium during a match, football players can lose up to 8,000 milligrams of sodium during two-a-days, and a marathoner could lose up to 5,000 milligrams of sodium during a marathon,” explains Bonci.
Electrolytes can be replenished from food sources and beverages with electrolytes added, so you don’t have to consume significant calories when recovering. Here are some suggestions from Bonci of foods and drinks that will help you amp up your electrolyte stores.
Salty foods such as crackers, pretzels
Briny foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, olives
Tomato or vegetable juice
Foods with salt added such as canned soups, canned vegetables
Broth, bouillon cubes
Fruits and vegetables
Leafy green vegetables
Whole grain cereals
Fortified breakfast cereals
Note that humans get bicarbonate from the conversion of carbon dioxide, so we don't need to consume bicarbonate.
Born and raised in New York (though a diehard Green Bay Packer fan by way of her mother's upbringing in the Midwest), Amy began her career in the health and fitness field immediately post-college, as an assistant editor at SHAPE Magazine. She attended James Madison University in Virginia where she received a degree in media arts and design with a concentration in print journalism and a European marketing minor after studying abroad at The University of Antwerp in Belgium. Amy’s work has appeared in Self, Cosmopolitan, SHAPE Magazine, Men's Fitness, Muscle & Fitness HERS, Pilates Style, Max Sports & Fitness, as well as on womenshealthmag.com, prevention.com, mademan.com, trektechblog.com and fitbump360.com. She is an avid CrossFitter with a serious love for mashed potatoes.
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