What Are Electrolytes and Why Do They Matter?
To move any of the 650+ skeletal muscles in your body, an electrical impulse has to travel from your brain to that muscle. It travels along hair-thin nerves called axons, and when your muscles get the message, they respond by contracting. On the macroscopic level, this means your body moves.
For this electrical message to travel through your body, it needs what any electric current needs: a conductor. For this purpose, we have electrolytes.
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What is an electrolyte?
Electrolyte is a chemical term. Broadly speaking, it’s any solution (solid dissolved in water) that conducts electricity. Hydrochloric and sulfuric acid are electrolytes, for example, but not the kind you want to drink. (They are poisonous.)
The most important electrolyte for the human body is salt — also known as NaCl or sodium chloride — but the body also uses potassium, calcium, and magnesium to regulate important body processes.
Why is salt so important?
Salt water conducts electricity. Your nerves use tiny dissolved salt particles to send signals throughout your body. Nerves called axons, which are really tiny tubes filled with charged sodium particles, connect motor neurons to muscle fibers like copper wires in a circuit.
When a motor neuron fires in response to a signal from your brain, it sends out an electrical impulse called an action potential. This action potential travels from one end of the axon to the other like a long chain of molecular dominos.
At the end of the chain, a muscle gets the message, twitches, and (hopefully) does something useful for your body.
What happens when you don’t have enough electrolytes?
Imagine you’re trying to have a conversation with your friend about Tom Brady’s throw to the two-yard line in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII. You’re standing face to face with your friend, and you know exactly what you want to say. You’ve got the catch on instant-replay in your head.
The only problem is that you’re both wearing earplugs.
You try to speak, but your friend just isn’t comprehending your amazement at the perfection of the play. This is roughly what happens in your body when you’re running low on sodium (Na+) ions. Your brain knows what it wants to say to your muscles, but the message is blocked.
There’s a special word for this condition because it’s extremely dangerous. The word is “hyponatremia” — hypo meaning “low” and natremia meaning “sodium.”
Symptoms of hyponatremia include vomiting, nausea, headache, confusion, low energy, drowsiness, fatigue, restlessness, irritability, muscle weakness, spasms, and seizures. You’ve probably experienced hyponatremia before in the form of muscle cramps.
What about the other electrolytes?
Low levels of potassium, calcium, chloride, and magnesium also hold you back on the field.
- Potassium deficiency can lead to weakness, confusion, and — in the worst case — paralysis.
- Low calcium can lead to muscle spasms.
- Magnesium deficiency causes muscle cramps, confusion, and nausea.
- Low chloride can show up as an irregular heartbeat.
All of these symptoms have one thing in common: you don’t want them.
How does your body manage its electrolyte levels?
If you’ve read about the body’s circadian rhythm, it shouldn’t surprise you that the body keeps its sodium levels in check in regularly timed cycles. These cycles last about a week (thus called “circaseptan”) and hinge on the body’s production of two hormones: aldosterone and cortisol.
According to these cycles and the natural fluctuation of hormones, the kidneys either retain or release water, which adjusts the body’s sodium concentration. This allows the body to maintain sodium levels long-term and somewhat independently of fluid intake.
That said, if you’re an athlete who sweats — and we know you do — then you’re losing sodium ions when you work out. This is because your body uses salt to power osmosis and push water through your sweat glands onto your skin.
Since your body can’t just magically produce sodium, proper recovery requires that you replace these ions. And the best way to do that is to consume electrolytes in liquid form during your workout to stay hydrated, and post-workout to refuel.
Where can you get electrolytes?
One source of electrolytes is the food you eat. Essential electrolytes are found in a wide variety of plant and animal food sources.
Sodium is easy to find because there’s salt added to most of the foods we eat. Despite the fact that most Americans (i.e., 90 percent) already ingest enough to put themselves at increased risk for hypertension, athletes still need to replenish their sodium after a bout of intense exercise. This is because athletes readily lose more sodium in sweat than the “recommended daily amount of sodium” when they exercise.
Potassium is found in leafy greens and vegetables like spinach, parsley, lettuce, broccoli, peas, lima beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, especially the skins. Oranges, bananas, apples, avocados, raisins, and apricots also contain potassium. Potassium can also be found in fish and meats in high amounts.
Chloride tends to come hand in hand with sodium as salt, but it can also be found in tomatoes, lettuce, and olives.
Magnesium can be found in many of the same places as potassium. Leafy greens, figs, nuts, avocados, bananas, raspberries, peas, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, artichokes, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and several kinds of fish contain high levels of magnesium.
Foods rich in calcium include broccoli, cabbage, okra, breads or grain products made with fortified flour, and any fish with edible bones (such as sardines).
Sometimes a healthy diet isn’t enough
Any athlete with a commitment to optimal performance needs to get an adequate supply of dietary electrolytes, but let’s be honest: keeping track of your daily magnesium intake is not what you signed up for. That’s why we offer an optimal mix of electrolytes that you can add to any drink to ensure you’re getting exactly what you need — all the time.
We did that work so you can focus on yours.
TB12™ Electrolytes contain 72 ionic trace minerals in the exact proportions they occur in nature. They include all the minerals your body needs to function at its best: sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, sulfate, calcium, silicon, selenium, phosphorus, iodine, chromium, manganese, iron, copper, molybdenum, vanadium, and zinc.
Electrolytes matter because you have a game to win
The body is one integrated system, and without an adequate supply of electrolytes, the whole system goes down. Don’t let a single missing mineral keep you from performing your best.
This blog is part of a series based on the New York Times Bestseller, The TB12 Method by Tom Brady. To learn more about the ways you can train your brain and your body, read The TB12 Method and subscribe to the TB12 Newsletter.