All About Electrolytes
As a result of very successful and strategic marketing, flashes of sports drinks generally come to mind at the mention of the word “electrolytes”. But what are they? And, are commercially produced sports drinks truly a desirable source of electrolytes?
In the world of nutrition, the term “electrolyte” refers to essential minerals which carry an electric charge when dissolved in the liquids of the body.
Electrolytes found in the human body work synergistically in somewhat awe-inspiring electrical dance, balancing body acidity and pressure, maintaining optimal performance of the digestive, cardiac, and muscular systems, while contributing to regeneration by assisting in reconstructing damaged tissue. Much like a battery to an electronic device, electrolytes trigger voltages in the human body carrying the electrical impulses crucial to existence.
Salt has acquired a bad reputation by being connected to high blood pressure and heart disease. In reality, it is one of the most important electrolytes, assisting in the digestion of both proteins and carbohydrates, while involved in the regulation of the delicate balance of blood pH. Sodium teams up with potassium and together they work to maintain the imperative balance of fluids, both inside and outside every single human cell. Without the regulatory properties provided by sodium (and potassium), all human cells would go down one of two dangerous routes: 1. They would dehydrate and shrivel up like raisins, or 2. They would hyper hydrate, swell, and burst like a bubble. Neither farewell for human health, nor life. Like a dedicated soldier, water follows salt without questioning the direction. Too much sodium in the intercellular fluid pulls disproportionate water out of the cells, shriveling up and crushing internal machinery. Too little sodium in the intercellular fluid (or, too much inside of the cell) draws superfluous water into the cell, which eventually causes the cell to rupture. Either an excess or insufficiency of sodium will result in damage at the cellular level, and in extreme conditions, death.
Beyond its role in fluid regulation, potassium is another important electrolyte involved in digestion to synthesize proteins and starch, regulation nerve signals and muscle contractions, and acts as a shuttle to move nutrients into and carry waste products out of cells (hello, detoxification!). Low blood potassium can result in a wide array of life-diminishing symptoms, shockingly commonly found in the general population such as fatigue, weakness, cramping, constipation, palpitations, bloating, and even depression.
Chloride is a constituent of hydrochloric acid, (the substance impressively potent enough to dissolve metal) which breaks down food in the stomach. The adage that “you are what you eat” desperately craves an update to the reality: You are what you absorb. To process, use, and benefit from all the nutrients found in the whole foods being consumed, the human body needs to be able to break them down. To break them down, stomach acid is required, of which the electrolyte chloride is necessary. This domino equation is essential to nutrient utilization and life, and not the only role of chloride. White blood cells also use chloride to manufacture a natural antiseptic called hypochlorite which is active against bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Calcium and magnesium are known for their importance in building strong bones, but as electrically charged versions, they work synergistically to stimulate muscle contractions: both skeletal and smooth. Calcium allows muscle fibers to slide together and move over each other as the muscle shortens, or contacts. The Yang to the calcium Ying is magnesium, which is required for the muscle fibers to slide outwards and relax the following contraction. Without proper firing of muscle contractions, the body would not be able to maintain even its most basic functions such as breathing and the beating of the heart.
Electrolytes are naturally and abundantly found in foods, especially fruits and vegetables. A healthy, balanced whole foods diet generally provides more than enough electrolytes to fuel a “normal” day’s activities, and yet Canadiansstruggle with obtaining and maintaining optimal levels from natural sources of critical electrolytes. Canada’s Food Guide recommends a daily intake of 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables, and research has proven a simple equation: the higher the average intake, the lower the risk of developing serious health complications. According to Statistics Canada, in 2017 only 28.6% of Canadians reported an intake of 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, providing an electrolyte gap in which the sports drink industry markets to fill with convenience. Sports drinks, however, generally contain excessive amounts of refined sugar, toxic chemicals, and dyes that fall short of qualifying as appropriate fuel for the health-conscious. And so, this particular adage remains: “Eat your fruits and vegetables.” Nature provides all of the electrolytes needed for optimal human health, it’s just up to us to consume them.