Electrolytes play a vital role in many essential processes in the body, but do you need to supplement them?
By Amy Curtis
What are electrolytes, what do they actually do and should we supplement them? Personal Trainer Amy Curtis looks at the important role of electrolytes in everyday life, how they work and when you might need a little more:
What are electrolytes?
We all need electrolytes. But we already have them, most of the time. We get them from our daily diet and our body puts them to good use without us having to really monitor the situation. They are a group of minerals including sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and zinc. Have you ever sweated so much that your skin feels grainy? (I know I have!) That’s electrolytes coming out of your pores.
The main role of electrolytes is to regulate fluid levels in the body, which is essential for a properly functioning heart, brain, kidney, muscles… most of you, essentially. But is our diet enough to keep our levels topped up? And what about when we’re exercising or the weather gets hotter so we sweat more?
‘Water is a wonderful beast – it makes up around 60 per cent of our bodies, so of course it’s always good to drink,’ says James Mayo, ex-athlete and founder of hydration company SOS Hydration. ‘But when it comes to endurance sports, on its own, it can be detrimental as too much of it will start to flush out your electrolytes, make you feel bloated and, in extreme cases, can result in death.’
Should you supplement electrolytes?
Even if you’re not an elite athlete, once you understand how they work, it makes sense to add electrolytes to your water anyway. Mayo recommends this as part of your daily routine, as long as you don’t have heart or kidney problems that mean you need to follow a low-salt diet.
‘Electrolytes improve the absorption of water into our systems, making that glass of water up to three times more effective,’ explains Mayo. Great for those of us who struggle to get our 2 litres a day!
How do electrolytes actually work?
The (very) basic science is that these different minerals work with our bodies to improve efficiency and get the water where it needs to go. The right amount of electrolytes in your system can make your head feel clearer, your body feel fresher and keep your hydration levels where they need to be.
Mayo tells us, ‘If you feel thirsty, you are already 2 per cent dehydrated. Dehydration can make you lethargic and cause headaches; taking an electrolyte supplement for everyday health is definitely a good idea.’
The right amount of electrolytes can make your head feel clearer and keep your hydration levels where they need to be.
But beware of what you’re drinking: ‘Watch for sugar-free products as these are less efficient. Sodium needs sugar in order to be absorbed into our system, so your supplement should have a little in there. Caffeine isn’t really a plus either, as it acts as a diuretic. If the ingredients of the product you are drinking are based on oral rehydration therapy, it should be about right.’
Mayo’s own product has been produced using guidelines on severe dehydration from the World Health Organization. He even told us a pharmacy rehydration drink like Dioralyte is a better product than some of the options out there, and they are all better than sports drinks, which are really only beneficial as fuel but not much good for hydration.
Should you drink electrolytes after exercise?
So we understand that we need the right balance of electrolytes all the time, and a supplement is probably beneficial to ensuring this, but what about after we exercise? ‘I would say you don’t need to start worrying about increasing your intake further until you’ve done an hour or more exercise,’ advises Mayo.
Ruth Tongue, MSc in Nutrition and founder of Elevate, agrees with a lot of what James Mayo says: ‘Electrolytes absolutely have a place and are essential for any exercise where you are losing fluid,’ explains Tongue. ‘If you’re starting exercise in the ideal state of being hydrated and want to avoid losing too much fluid via sweat and urine, you’ll need to replace the amount of fluid lost via sweat but minimise the amount you pee out!
‘Adding electrolytes to your drink is a way to do this. However, this is only really needed for durations of exercise or in environments where loss of fluid is high. If you stick to just water in these situations, you’ll lose a large amount of water through urine and not rehydrate well, unless you’re eating foods containing sodium at the same time.’
Do natural electrolyte supplements work?
But what if we want to try and rehydrate without a chemical supplement? ‘Be wary of “natural” alternatives like coconut water cited for being better at rehydrating,’ Tongue warns, ‘Coconut water is high in potassium, but not sodium, which is the main electrolyte responsible for retaining fluid in the body.’
So it seems that if you opt for electrolytes rather than water, you can’t really go wrong. But don’t panic if this isn’t really an option for you – electrolyte drinks are an ideal situation, but water still plays a very valid part in our health and is still a good way to stay hydrated when you need to.
Electrolytes are absolutely essential for the efficient functioning of our bodies.
Rob Hobson, Head of Nutrition at Healthspan, agrees: ‘I would advise that water is fine but for longer sessions, especially if you’re a heavy sweater (maybe from the heat or intense training) then electrolytes are a useful way to replace these salts in the body,’ he says.
‘The common electrolytes are sodium, chloride and potassium as well as smaller amounts of calcium and magnesium. I would say water is fine for anything under 2-3 hours to be honest as we get electrolytes from the food we eat across the day, so it also depends on how nutritious your diet is too.’
Again, Hobson says that it’s going to be different for those who are pushing themselves more, and therefore sweating more: ‘Endurance athletes definitely fall into the category of people that need to consider electrolytes as part of their diet and supplement regime, especially if training and competing in hot climates. Also, worth pointing out, it is not just length of time but more about intensity. You could go for a gentle hike for 4 hours and probably wouldn’t need to consider electrolytes!’
The benefits of electrolyte supplements
Electrolytes are absolutely essential for the efficient functioning of our bodies. Without them you lose focus, feel tired, you might get muscle cramps, your organs won’t be working at their best, and you become dehydrated. And water alone can’t provide all of this. We need to get electrolytes in our daily diet, and we do, for the most part, but we can’t always be certain we are getting enough so, to take out the guess work, a daily electrolyte supplement is a good idea.
However, if you’re just drinking water and eating a balanced diet, it’s quite possible that you are getting enough, and if you’re happy with this, you need only consider a supplement at times that you sweat more: when it’s hot and when you’re exercising and sweating more than usual, and as a general rule, when this sweating is prolonged for an hour or more.