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Electrolyte Enlightenment

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | July 25, 2014

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(NERD ALERT: Today’s post goes to eleven on the geekery-o-meter, so move on if you’re looking for something light and breezy.)

Anyone who’s ever seen a Gatorade ad knows that electrolytes are mega important if you’re sweating or playing football in Florida or whatever. But beyond that, what the heck areelectrolytes, exactly?

Sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, bicarbonate, and sulfate are the major electrolytes found in the human body. They’re minerals that dissolve in water, generating an electrical charge that helps cells accomplish various bodily functions.

Sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium are cations, meaning they have positive charges. Chloride, phosphate, bicarbonate, and sulfate are anions, meaning they have negative charges. Cations and anions are paired up because the interaction of the positive and negative charges is where their magic happens. For example, positive sodium combines with negative chloride. You may know the result of this marriage as table salt.

Electrolytes also work in tandem on a broader scale. For example, sodium and potassium work together to keep cell fluid levels in check. Sodium pulls fluid into cells and potassium dumps it out. This “sodium-potassium pump” also flushes waste products out of cells, which is a nice little bonus.

Calcium and magnesium are another example of an electrolyte pair. Together, they regulate nerves and muscles. Calcium activates nerves but magnesium blocks calcium, allowing nerves to relax. In fact, if I’m having tight muscle issues, which isn’t uncommon for us athletic neurotic types, magnesium is my go-to muscle relaxant.

Sweat sucks out electrolytes like crazy, so sports drinks play an important role in replenishing them, but the rest of the time, there are plenty of healthy foods you should opt for instead. Sodium and chloride are easy. If you’re in a heavy training phase, allow yourself a few extra dashes of unrefined sea salt with your food, which is packed with trace minerals like zinc, iron, and manganese. For potassium, look to bananas, sweet potatoes, beans, and regular potatoes. For magnesium, eat plenty of raw seeds, nuts, and leafy greens. Calcium you’ll find in tofu, sardines (they taste better fresh, trust me), spinach, and dairy (especially yogurt).

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