An ongoing conversation in the health and wellness industry is whether supplements should be recommended, or whether a well-balanced diet of whole foods makes supplementation a moot point (if you’re not eating a well-balanced diet of whole foods, then supplementation is less controversial). Taking vitamin B12 as a natural energy booster at lunch, magnesium to help you relax before bed, and vitamin C to improve your immunity could be daily occurrences as long as they fit certain criteria that work for you (namely, does doing so address a deficiency, does it make you feel better, and are you supplementing food rather than replacing food).
But what about supplementing under special circumstances? For example, when working out. Usually, consistent supplementation (daily) is necessary to see the desired benefits, but when it comes to exercise, you might need an extra something. In fact, you may be supplementing without even thinking about it. Do you bring sports drinks to class? Do you add any powders to your water? Do you crave a salty snack post-spin? If so, you’re supplementing with electrolytes.
Electrolytes are minerals, specifically sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, that are found in your blood, sweat, and urine. They’re essential to the proper functioning of your body. Your body is constantly working to maintain homeostasis – the dynamic equilibrium at which everything from salt-fluid balance, to temperature, to pH levels is held within a very narrow window that keeps you ticking – and your electrolyte levels are crucial to regulating this balance.
Sodium is essential to proper functioning of your nervous system, potassium helps to regulate proper fluid balance, calcium and magnesium are needed for proper contraction of your muscles (that includes your heart!), and all the electrolytes contribute to the most important factor of homeostasis: regulation of internal pH levels. Usually a normal diet and lifestyle keeps your electrolyte levels in check, but heat, illness, or excessive sweating (due to, say, spinning) can diminish your electrolyte store. You feel thirsty as a result, but replenishing with water is replacing only the fluid, not the lost electrolytes.
What happens when you’re low in electrolytes? Well, a mild disturbance will go unnoticed. (You may just feel the need to crack open a bag of potato chips to curb the salt craving). But a more severe imbalance will result in fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, numbness or tingling, confusion, muscle weakness, cramping, headaches, or convulsions. If you’ve ever experienced these symptoms post-spin, it may be a sign that you’re sweating out more electrolytes than you’re taking in.
In the spirit of turning to food first, here are some foods containing electrolytes that would be great options for pre- or post-spin snacks: bananas, avocados, and sweet potatoes (for potassium), nuts and seeds (for magnesium), leafy green vegetables (for calcium), and pickled and salty foods (for sodium and chloride). Making a green smoothie packed with spinach, bananas, and nut milk would give you a good dose of electrolytes.
If you’re still experiencing signs of an electrolyte deficiency as a result of your sweaty ride, then consider supplementation. Most people turn to sports drinks like Gatorade for this, but the additives like sugar and colouring are less than ideal. You can make your own electrolyte drink by adding a bit of salt (1/4 teaspoon), some lemon juice (1/4 cup), and some coconut water (about a cup), to your bottle of water. Or, you can add electrolyte tablets or powders to your water. There are plenty to choose from, so consider ingredients like added colour, sugar, flavouring, and so on, as well as additional nutrients, like vitamin C, when making your choice.
The key is to listen to your body. Excessive supplementation is not good (there’s such a thing as too many electrolytes), so if you’ve never experienced any of the signs of low electrolyte levels, then your diet is probably providing you with sufficient amounts. If you have experienced the signs, try altering your snack choices on the day of your work outs to see if that helps, and if it doesn’t do the trick, look for a supplement that fits for you. Everybody’s body is different and needs different support, so it’s all about tuning in and listening closely. Leave a comment if you have any questions!