Electrolytes - The Basics

I hope you’ve seen the mindless and ridiculously entertaining movie Idiocracy for no other reason than to make my point that electrolytes, while very important, are not what plants crave. Okay…the dystopian idea that Brawndo has what plants crave wasn’t complete BS – they do in fact require the ions present in electrolytes.

The focus of this article, however, is not to concern ourselves with the needs of plants, but instead the significant and pivotal role electrolytes play in human health and performance.

So what are electrolytes?

In general, an electrolyte is defined as “a nonmetallic electric conductor in which current is carried by the movement of ions.”Put more simply, electrolytes are minerals and other substances that carry either a positive or negative charge when dissolved in water. You will find these substances throughout your body and are most present in your blood, fluid between all cells, sweat, and urine.

Some of the most important electrolytes to our health are:

Na

SODIUM

Mg

MAGNESIUM

K

POTASIUM

P

PHOSPHORUS

Cl-

CHLORIDE

Ca

CALCIUM

HCO3-

BICARBONATE

“Why does this matter to me, what am I going to feel?”

For all humans, electrolytes serve the imperative function of regulating fluid balance, maintaining proper pH (acid/alkaline balance), promoting nerve and muscle function, supporting heart and vascular health, improving bone strength, and maintaining brain health. For the subsets of people who wear the badge of Wilderness and Working Athletes, the role of electrolytes goes even further.

Luckily, our bodies closely regulate electrolyte levels in the blood to avoid symptoms of deficiency or overabundance. This balance, however, becomes very difficult to maintain when you’re mile after mile chasing elk in September, repairing power lines on a mid-August afternoon, bowhunting at 10,000 ft elevation, or working a 10 hour shift under the sun. When we lose fluid, we lose electrolytes as well. Dehydration, excessive sweating, diarrhea or vomiting, and a poor diet are all conditions that can lead to an electrolyte imbalance.

The cost of dehydration & electrolyte imbalance

Dehydration, or a specific electrolyte imbalance, does not always come with sweat rings on your hat or beads of salty moisture pouring down your face. Symptoms are obviously based on the severity of dehydration, but almost always, any level of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance will result in diminished physical and mental performance.

While a mild imbalance may not cause any symptoms, severe cases have the potential for serious side effects and in some cases death. Remember, at a core level electrolytes are the substances responsible for conducting nerve impulses, contracting muscles, maintaining bodily hydration and regulating your body’s pH levels.

Some common symptoms of an imbalance may include:

  • Confusion
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Headaches
  • Stomach Pain
  • Muscle Cramps
  • Mental & Physical Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Mood Change

 

Hydration beyond survival

At Built Athletics, we don’t want you, the Outdoor Athlete, to just get outside, we want you to thrive while you’re out there. We tend to look at hydration not just as a means of survival and performing at the status quo, but as an opportunity to ignite our optimal physical and mental capacity on the mountain, on the job site, and at home.

Dehydration at as little as 2% of body weight will diminish physical exercise performance. Losses of water, and electrolytes, in excess of 5% of body weight can decrease the capacity for output by roughly 30%. Your capacity for high-intensity exercises such as a CrossFit workout, a heavy and steep pack out up a mountain, or anything resulting in exhaustion within a few minutes, is reduced by as much as 45% with a corresponding dehydration loss of only 2.5% of body weight¹. As you can see there’s a very tangible connection between your performance potential and your electrolyte balance.

Electrolytes & Recovery

The importance of maintaining adequate electrolytes in our system impacts our recovery as well. Simply put, we can only perform as well as we recover. Intense training or a strenuous and physical day on the job both take a toll on our muscles, connective tissues, and critical fluid levels.

While a well-rounded diet of nutritious foods is imperative to take in the necessary electrolytes our bodies require to operate, it’s not always the most expeditious or practical source of electrolytes when round two of your workout or Tuesday of the workweek are just around the corner. That’s when a healthy electrolyte supplement comes into the equation: