We are taught the importance of drinking water, especially when exercising. Most health and fitness experts recommend drinking at least eight glasses of water per day, and slightly more during the hot summer. What the experts fail to mention is the danger of drinking too much water which can dilute essential minerals and electrolytes leading to serious health complications.
What are electrolytes?
In scientific terms, an electrolyte contains “free ions that behave as an electrically conductive medium.” Electrolytes carry positive and negative charges throughout your body. The primary electrolytes are sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), and chloride (Cl−). Your muscles and nerves are activated by electrolytes, as an example, muscle contraction is directly dependent on the presence of calcium (Ca2+), sodium (Na+), and potassium (K+). If your body lacks these electrolytes, muscle weakness or muscle contractions may occur. This is especially critical as your heart is muscle tissue and inadequate or imbalanced electrolytes leads to irregular heartbeat, rhythm or even cardiac arrest.
Which electrolytes do we need?
Sodium – While too much sodium can cause kidney problems, bloating or high blood pressure, sodium is necessary for a variety of physiological functions and we can’t live without it. Symptoms of low sodium (hyponatremia) include headaches, nausea, vomiting and can be life threatening.
Potassium – Potassium is necessary for nerve conduction. Low potassium is called hypokalemia and may cause an irregular heartbeat, muscular weakness, aching and cramps and constipation.
Calcium – While calcium is best known for healthy bones and teeth, it is also critical for muscle contraction and nerve conduction. Calcium deficiency may cause muscle cramps, heart palpitations, numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes, dizziness and mental confusion.
Magnesium – Magnesium is necessary for the production of energy through the conversion of glucose into ATP and critical for cardiovascular rhythm and function. Magnesium deficiency symptoms can include irritability, insomnia, weakness, muscle tremors and twitching.
How do we replace electrolytes but stay hydrated?
We lose electrolytes primarily through sweat, urine and during the digestive process, but our electrolyte levels can also be impacted by poor diet, stress, illness or medications. The elderly are also prone to electrolyte imbalances. Unfortunately, water alone will not maintain adequate levels of electrolytes, you need the eight glasses to maintain hydration and blood volume, but you need to replace electrolytes through a balanced healthy diet, moderate consumption of diluted isotonic (and low sugar) sports drinks, and sensible mineral supplementation.