Your Complete Guide to Electrolytes: What are They and Why do You Need Them?

Imagine you are going for a run or performing some sort of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) when you start to feel the cramping coming on.

As women, I am sure the majority of us are already familiar with cramping during that time of the month, and with that comes its own sorts of problems. Cramping is no bueno.

But cramping as a result of exercise can make it a lot harder to get in that last mile, finish up your workout, and is just painful!

One of the big reasons why your muscles start to cramp could be an electrolyte imbalance.

Today I’m going to tell you what electrolytes are, why they’re so important, when you should take them, as well as what to look for in your electrolyte supplement.

Consider me your electrolyte guide!

Electrolytes 101

For starters, let’s go over some of the biggest questions you might have about electrolytes!

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are nutrients that help many of your bodily functions perform at optimal levels.

Electrolytes form ions (electrically charged particles) in blood, urine, and body fluids. They separate into positively and negatively charged ions when they are dissolved in water.

These electrical charges are what gives electrolytes the ability to keep your body systems powered up, and are necessary for your body to perform many functions.

The major electrolytes include magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, and chloride.

Magnesium supports the immune system, helps in muscle and nerve function, heart rhythm regulation, bone-building and strength, and protein synthesis.

Calcium supports bone and teeth health and helps muscles and blood vessels contract.

Potassium helps with muscle and nerve connection, kidney and heart function, balancing sodium intake and helping with muscle functions.

Sodium aids in water balance, regulating blood pressure, maintaining homeostasis in the body, and helping with muscle contractions.

Chloride helps maintain fluid balance in and outside of your cells, and proper blood pressure and blood volume.

What Causes An Electrolyte Imbalance?

Coach Kristi running outside

An electrolyte imbalance usually occurs because of fluid loss, leaving those charged ions out of balance. Lots of things can cause fluid loss—like exercising, poor diet, sweating, sickness, and going to the bathroom.

And let’s be real, we all know that we do at least one of those things on the list. Let’s talk dirty for a second (come on guys, not like that).

You are probably aware that your urine can tell you a lot—like how hydrated or dehydrated you are, what liquids you are drinking, and more. Generally speaking, see-through yellow pee means that you are properly hydrated (TMI?).

Alright, enough with the potty talk, here are some other common causes of electrolyte imbalances that can occur because of fluid loss:

  • High fevers, vomiting, diarrhea, and sweating
  • Kidney disease
  • Diet low in whole foods
  • Intestinal or digestive issues from malabsorption
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Taking antibiotics
  • High-intensity exercise

Signs of Electrolyte Imbalance

Cramps during exercise are one sign that you may need more electrolytes. Along with cramping, some other symptoms of an imbalance can include:

  1. Headaches
  2. Fever
  3. Changes in Blood Pressure
  4. Changes in Appetite
  5. Fatigue
  6. Anxiety
  7. Restlessness
  8. Inability to Focus
  9. Muscle Aches, Spasms, Twitches
  10. Cramps, Constipation, Diarrhea

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Why You Should Take Electrolytes

Coach Kristi running outside

Regulate Fluid Balance in the Body

When there is an increase in the concentration of electrolytes, the body has to work to regulate fluid balance by bringing in more water. This is done by signaling to the antidiuretic hormone, telling the body to excrete less water and increase water absorption.

Regulate Blood Pressure

High concentrations of electrolytes help the body increase the amount of water brought into the blood, boosting low blood pressure.

Prevent Hyponatremia

That is just a fancy word for saying when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low. When you are exercising the body can excrete up to 2.5L of sweat an hour. When there isn’t enough sodium available in the blood, hyponatremia can occur, causing muscle spasms and cramps. More serious conditions can occur too—like headaches, confusion, loss of consciousness, etc.

Digestion and pH Balance

Chloride and sodium are often found in the form of salt in the body, and are often excreted in sweat. Chloride in the body is used to create hydrochloric acid which is used for digestion and balancing pH in the blood. Low levels of chloride can result in loss of appetite, drowsiness, or irregular breathing.

So there are so many reasons electrolytes are important, but in regards to exercise there are a number of things that you want to consider:

Can you Just Increase your Salt Intake For Electrolytes?

You guys, definitely not. While a little sodium in moderation is okay and actually necessary to perform many basic functions, too much isn’t a good idea.

Too much sodium causes water retention and can result in swelling of the hands, feet, and ankles. Also, if sodium is taken after you exercise without other electrolytes to balance it, it can disrupt your body’s regulation process. For proper balance, take your sodium with the other electrolytes.

Can you Just Drink Water?

Your body loses fluids and electrolytes when you sweat. In many cases that can lead to cramps and fatigue because of dehydration. Even in mild cases, as little as 2% dehydration can result in decreased performance.

And remember that thirst is the first sign of dehydration. Stay hydrated my friends.

Water alone will help to rehydrate you from your strenuous activity, but not consuming electrolytes will upset the proper fluid balance in your bloodstream.

Electrolytes will help to replenish the minerals that were lost through sweat, and sodium and potassium will help to regulate your body’s water balance so that your muscles and cells in your body can retain the needed water—making the most out of your water.

When You Need Them

Coach Kristi doing high intensity interval training

If you go on a five-minute walk around the neighborhood, most likely you aren’t going to sweat enough where you need to replace your electrolytes ASAP. But there are certain times you will, those include:

  1. Running in hot temperatures
  2. Being heavily layered in cold temperatures
  3. Running long amounts of time/distances
  4. Sweating a lot
  5. Strenuous activity
  6. Hot Yoga

How Much Do You Need?

There are a number of factors that will determine how much electrolytes you need, and this amount will probably differ from person to person.

Fitness level, duration of exercise, gender, age, and environmental factors (like heat) will all play a role in determining how much you need.

But the Institute of Medicine set some basic standards for these minerals:

  • Keep sodium intake under 1500 mg/day
  • Potassium recommendation is 4700 mg/day
  • Magnesium for females should be around 255-265 mg/day
  • Suggested intake for calcium is 800 mg/day
  • Chloride recommendation is around 2300 mg/day

Why IdealLean Electrolytes

Optimal Blend of Electrolytes

  1. Sodium—260 mg
  2. Potassium—180 mg
  3. Magnesium—18 mg
  4. Calcium—10 mg
  5. Chloride—151 mg

Added Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamin D3: Aids in the absorption of calcium, potassium, and magnesium. It is also important in bone formation, muscle recovery and exercise-induced inflammation.

Vitamin B6: Aids in the absorption of potassium and magnesium.

Vitamin C: Works as an antioxidant and assists in the formation of collagen to aid in joint health and stability in the body.

Increased Hydration

Coconut Water Powder has been shown to increase hydration during and after exercise.

With electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and coconut water powder, IdealLean Electrolyte rehydrates, restores, and refreshes; helping you to reach your fitness goals faster.

Amy Posey

Amy Posey

Writer and expert

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