We all know that eating a diet with ample high-quality proteins, clean carbohydrates and healthy fats are absolutely essential to your performance and gains. So what is the missing link? Why does performance so often take a nose dive when you need to “dig deep”, “bring the noise” or otherwise “take it to the next level”?
Simply put, over-hydration (too much water) without adequate levels of key nutrients called electrolytes can lead to a state called hyponatremia. Electrolytes are one of the least well understood components of optimal performance that, when ignored can lead to sub-optimal performance and in extreme cases, land you in the hospital. Ignore them at your peril!
So, what are these trace elements and why are they so important to performance? It seems ironic that something as simple as salt (a thing that we all know can actually dehydrate you) would be so important to keep you hydrated. Electrolytes are a fancy term for four main elements are a normally bound to other elements like chlorine (such as in regular table salt Sodium+Chloride or NaCl). When bound like this they are stable molecules simply called salts. The Electro part refers to their ability to conduct electricity. Without these, regular H2O cannot conduct electricity! This is a fundamental part of why these little guys are so essential to performance.
OVER-HYDRATION (TOO MUCH WATER) WITHOUT ADEQUATE ELECTROLYTES CAN IMPAIR PERFORMANCE
People in general and even most athletes have only a rudimentary understanding of what electrolytes are and what they can do. For such people, electrolytes are vaguely associated with dehydration and compromised performance. “Make sure you consume enough electrolytes,” we are told – “otherwise you will soon run out of energy when the pressure is on.” We are informed in passing that electrolytes are important for hydration, that we must get enough sodium and potassium to offset training-induced fatigue.
However, there is much more to the electrolyte story than simply proper hydration and fatigue reduction. Popping a few salt tablets before an endurance event will not, by itself, make you a better athlete. The truth is, our body is a carefully-balanced and complexly orchestrated mass of tissues, cells and fluids, each of which is governed by a seemingly infinite array of electrical signals of importance to ensuring optimal performance and, more critically, human survival.
When more informed people think of electrolytes they are quick to point to the importance of sodium, potassium, and calcium (each essential for muscle contraction, among many other functions) and how each of the key electrolytes must be balanced for optimal effect.
…THERE ARE FIVE ADDITIONAL ELECTROLYTES OF IMMENSE IMPORTANCE TO BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONING.
While the aforementioned big three are indeed critical, there are five additional electrolytes of immense importance to biological functioning. When working together, each is responsible for performing a range of tasks, in particular the balancing of fluids between the intracellular (inside the cell) and extracellular (outside the cell) spaces.1
It’s not something we bodybuilders often give a lot of thought to but this intracellular/extracellular balancing of fluids is vitally important when it comes to muscle function, hydration, nerve impulses, and pH levels, to mention but four factors of importance to human performance and, specifically, training output.
I’ll now discuss in more detail exactly how these critical chemical substances work to benefit health, wellbeing, performance, and muscle growth. I’ll profile each of the seven major electrolytes, provide tips on how to optimize your balance of these essential elements, and show you how to get the best of the electrolytes when you need them most.
Powering the Body
Electrolytes are chemical substances which, when dissolved in fluids, transform into electrically-charged particles called ions. Each of the electrolytes is integral to the conduction of electric currents critical to the proper functioning of muscles, nerves and all other tissues of the body. There can be no intense training, sufficient recovery and tissue growth without a precise ratio of each circulating in the body at any given time. In fact, without a proper balance of key electrolytes, our body will in many ways be compromised and training success will be difficult to achieve.1
Aside from being critical to training and muscle-building success, electrolytes are vital to the functioning of every cell of the body. From the ceaseless beating of the heart to blood clotting to ATP production, electrolytes are essential to keeping us alive and functioning at a peak level. For athletic populations the inclusion of electrolytes in their proper ratio can mean the difference between winning and losing (or overcoming an arduous task or faltering at the final hurdle).6. 7
ELECTROLYTES ARE CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES WHICH, WHEN DISSOLVED IN FLUIDS, TRANSFORM INTO ELECTRICALLY-CHARGED PARTICLES CALLED IONS.
Electrolytes, as mentioned, are transformed into electrically-charged particles called ions. These particles are both positively charged (cations) and negativity charged (anions). The major cations are: sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. The major anions are: chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate. Each performs a distinct and important role.
Before discussing the different electrolytes and their respective importance to health, wellbeing, and performance, it’s important to note that the stability of our electrolyte balance (in essence, the ability of each to synergistically influence a range of biological functions) is largely dependent upon hydration.
Because the electrolytes are involved in countless metabolic activities and are integral to the proper functioning of all the cells of the body, they are always on the move and widely circulated through all tissues. However, when the body becomes dehydrated (however mild) the electrolytes do not have the requisite fluid for proper mobility and thus cannot perform their respective roles. Therefore, to ensure the electrolytes outlined below are able to complete their vast array of duties, optimal hydration must be prioritized.1, 3, 4
Major Electrolytes: Why you need them to Function and Thrive
Seven Major Electrolytes
The most abundant cation in extracellular fluid and thus responsible for controlling the total amount of water in the body, sodium is essential for the activity of neurons and muscle cells. It’s chiefly responsible for keeping other electrolytes functioning in the extracellular environment.
Hyponatremia can occur when sodium levels plummet due to, among other factors, excessive sweating. Headache, fatigue and muscle spasms are likely symptoms. Hypernatremia may occur due to an excessive accumulation of sodium. Symptoms include weakness and lethargy.
The most abundant anion in extracellular fluid, chloride, working closely with sodium, diffuses into and out of cells, creating the osmotic pressure essential to maintaining homeostasis. A major component of hydrochloric acid (found in the stomach), chloride is also essential for the digestion of nutrients. It’s also critical to maintaining proper acidity levels in the body (a lack of which can lead to irritability, muscle twitching and cramps).
As with all other electrolytes, chloride levels must be correctly balanced otherwise toxicity (hyperchloremia) or deficiency (hypochloremia) may occur.
The most abundant cation in intracellular fluid, potassium is essential for the electrical activity of the muscle cells, cardiac tissue and neurons. Potassium helps to correctly balance other electrolytes and assists with neuronal transmission by enhancing conductivity between cells.
While potassium toxicity (hyperkalemia) is rare (causing paralysis of the lungs and cardiac arrest), deficiency (hypokalemia), often caused by loss of water and/or vomiting, is much more common (causing muscle weakness and cramping)
Magnesium is a co-factor in over 300 enzyme systems and thus responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions within the body. The body’s fourth most prevalent mineral, it’s critical to the synthesis of the life-giving nucleic acids RNA and DNA. Important to every cell of the body, magnesium, a cation which functions in intracellular fluid, helps regulate muscle and nerve function, the cardiovascular system, blood sugar levels, the formation of ATP, and immune function.
Most abundantly found in bones (with the remaining 1-2% found in other tissues, and fluids), calcium is essential for blood clotting and the excitability of muscle cells and neurons. Insufficient dietary calcium intake may lead to low blood-calcium levels. Remembering that other tissues also need calcium, low blood levels may result in calcium being removed from bones to rectify the balance. Osteoporosis may subsequently occur.
Excessive calcium (hypercalcemia) may lead to digestive problems, nausea and brain dysfunction while a deficiency (hypocalcemia) can result in memory loss, depression and abnormal heart rhythms.
Phosphorus is the most abundant mineral in the body next to calcium (85% is found in the bones and teeth as phosphate). It’s an intracellular anion responsible for the formation of the nucleic acids DNA, RNA, and ATP. A major building block for cell membranes, phosphate is necessary for tissue growth and repair and energy production within cells.
Excessive phosphate (hyperphosphatemia) can indicate kidney disease and/or calcium deficiency and is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. A deficiency (hypophosphatemia) is signified by weakened bones, fatigue, and irregular breathing.
Each of us possesses an intricately-balanced buffering system to ensure a correct pH balance of 7.30 to 7.45. This buffering system features, to a large degree, bicarbonate, formed from the carbonic acid produced by normal respiration. Whenever the body becomes acidic through normal metabolic processes, such as exercise-induced lactic acid accumulation, bicarbonate (an alkaline compound) is released by the kidneys to regulate this increased level of acidity. The kidneys also lessen the output of bicarbonate whenever the body needs to become more acidic. Thus an ideal pH balance is maintained and homeostasis is achieved.
Restoring the Balance
Unfortunately, most people are deficient in key electrolytes. However, to optimize performance we must prioritize the intake and, more specifically, the proper ratio of all seven. Indeed, getting the right balance is critical for not only performance but also for general health and wellbeing.6, 7
For example, while sodium, potassium, and calcium are required to enhance muscle contraction and prevent muscle cramping (excessive contraction) and weakness, excess sodium can cause high blood pressure and increase one’s chances of heart disease while excess potassium can lead to kidney failure and excess calcium can result in lethargy, fatigue, confusion and constipation.
This is one reason why the use of diuretics (among non-clinical populations) is extremely dangerous as such compounds can severely disrupt the body’s water balance and electrolyte status, leading to, among other things, irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, and permanent neurological damage.
Aside from consuming enough water throughout the day, we must also eat enough electrolyte-containing foods such as low fat dairy products (for calcium and phosphorus), dark, green leafy vegetables (magnesium), pasta and canned low-fat soups (sodium) and bananas and sweat potatoes (potassium).
In addition, we must seek to improve homeostasis, in particular that which regulates the absorption, distribution and excretion of water. Illness and disease (renal disease, prolonged vomiting and diarrhea, for example) can cause blood serum levels to become imbalanced (becoming too high or dropping too low). Electrolytes cannot properly function in such an environment.
Fortunately, a well-balanced diet (with plenty of fruits and vegetables) along with water consumption (50ml per kilogram of bodyweight per day) will help enormously when it comes to enhancing electrolyte status. Athletes and active people in general, however, may stand to benefit from specific electrolyte supplementation in the form of specifically formulated electrolyte drinks.4, 5, 6
The fact that the electrolytes must not be evenly distributed in the body cannot be overstated. In fact, it’s the unequal distribution of each of the electrolytes that allows the body’s many important metabolic processes to occur. Therefore, each electrolyte must be present in specific amounts.3
Fortunately the body can, under normal circumstances, balance each of the key electrolytes, provided a good balance of the right nutrients is achieved. However, for athletic populations, with their extra nutrient demands, tissue degeneration, sweat loss and general metabolic activity, extra assistance is needed.
…EACH ELECTROLYTE MUST BE PRESENT IN SPECIFIC AMOUNTS.
In fact, by directly supplementing with key electrolytes prior to training, greater hydration is achieved along with better performance overall. Electrolyte drinks have for decades been extremely popular among athletes. However, the vast majority of these are simply sugar water with a little sodium and perhaps some potassium to ‘balance’ things out.
Fortunately, athletes and active people now have the perfect “solution” – CARBION+. Aside from containing a unique blend of high-molecular-weight carbohydrates for both sustained and faster absorption, CARBION+ features the perfect balance of the four major electrolytes: calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Taken in conjunction with a well-balanced diet, CARBION+ is a superior way in which to infuse the body with the critical electrolytes needed for maximum performance and optimum hydration.
The ingestion of electrolytes is often approached as a mere afterthought by well-meaning athletes and gym trainees. As this article has explained, however, these critical chemical substances, required for the biological functioning of all the cells of the body and essential for high level performance and tissue growth, should be placed on the same lofty pedestal as protein, carbs and fats.
By consuming a well-balanced diet featuring an abundance of electrolyte-containing foods you’ll soon improve your electrolyte balance. But if you’re really wanting to boost your performance you’d be wise to also incorporate a top of the line electrolyte formula such as CARBION+ into you current training regimen.2 After all, your results, and every cell of your body, demand the best.
- Conrad Stoppler, M., et al. Electrolytes. MedicineNet.com. [Online] https://www.medicinenet.com/electrolytes/article.htm#what_are_electrolytes Retrieved on 5.2.18
- Dolan, S. Electrolytes: Understanding replacement options. [Online] https://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/715/electrolytes-understanding-replacement-options/ Retrieved on 5.2.18
- Felman, A. (2017, November 20). Everything you need to know about electrolytes. Medical News Today. [Online] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/153188.php. Retrieved on 5.2.18
- Johnson, H. H., et al. Effects of electrolyte and nutrient solutions on performance and metabolic balance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988 Feb;20(1):26-33.
- Jung, A. P., et al. Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. J Athl Train. 2005 Apr-Jun; 40(2): 71–75.
- Maughan, R. J., et al. Fluid and electrolyte loss and replacement in exercise. J Sports Sci. 1991 Summer;9 Spec No:117-42.
- Von Duvillard, S. P., et al. Fluids and hydration in prolonged endurance performance. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):651-6.