The Salty Truth About Hydration and Electrolytes
The hottest days of summer are most definitely here! We tend to be a little more tuned into staying hydrated in warmer seasons since we know excessive heat poses an extra challenge for exercise performance and also just the activities of daily living. But, hydration is one of those topics that needs to be considered all year long, and there’s a lot more to it than simply drinking water.
I recently posted some quick hydration tips on Instagram that you can find here, but I wanted to dig deeper with some of the suggestions I have to optimize exercise performance as well as help you feel better throughout the day. Some of this may be a bit surprising and catch you off guard, but just bear with me and hopefully it will make sense!
Hydration Cliffs Notes:
Hydration obviously plays a vital role in health. Our bodies are made of 60% water, which helps regulate body temperature, digestion, brain function, and blood flow for cardiovascular health in addition to many other vital bodily functions. When it comes to weight control and sugar cravings, hydration is often the missing link, because a lower blood volume due to dehydration leads to a more concentrated amount of glucose (aka sugar) running through your body, which ultimately results in erratic peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels that commonly triggers hunger and cravings.
I always make sure to ask my clients about what they’re drinking throughout the day when starting a partnership to tackle their health and nutrition goals. This is in part because sweetened beverages are one of the first things that can be reduced and/or eliminated to produce a large result with minimal change. It’s also to be sure that they’re adequately consuming fluids that will contribute to a consistently hydrated state which will ultimately enhance performance and even productivity with work, taking care of kids, or whatever else requires energy and focus throughout the day.
Of importance to note is that people engaging in intense or prolonged exercise, living at a high altitude or in a very hot climate need to pay even more attention to hydration, yet this is a commonly overlooked topic.
There’s more to the story than just water!
Water is typically the first thing that comes to mind when we consider hydration, but there’s more to the story, especially for people leaning into a mostly whole or real food diet. It’s also important to mention that too much water can be dangerous. While this is not a common problem for the average person, over consuming water actually dilutes the sodium levels in our blood, which is accompanied by undesirable symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, muscle cramps and headaches.
In addition to taking in adequate fluids, being properly hydrated also depends on the proper balance of water and electrolytes. The most common electrolytes that play a role in this are sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Mainstream medical associations like the American Heart Association and CDC recommend that we keep our sodium intake below 2,300 mg a day, and preferably closer to 1,500 mg. This advice is partly due to the fact that most Americans are consuming a Standard American Diet (SAD) that is full of processed foods and therefore more sodium, which is generally used as a way to make processed food taste better and last longer on a shelf.
In contrast, a person that’s consuming a mostly real food diet, or making a transition in that direction can be at risk for not consuming enough sodium, which works closely in conjunction with potassium and magnesium to regulate fluid balance. While a real food diet is still quite adequate when it comes to potassium and magnesium (think plant foods, nuts and seeds), sodium is lacking unless brought in from an outside source. This is both controversial and surprising to many people, given the overwhelming advice to try to consume as little sodium as possible. As a dietitian trained in the 90’s, even I was trained to coach people to get the salt down, when what was really needed was a shift in the big picture of eating.
It’s safe to say we can all agree that processed foods present a strong risk for an abundance of chronic health problems, especially when consumed to a large extent. But a healthy, active person that is consuming mostly real food and also sweating through routine exercise needs to evaluate the need for exogenous electrolytes, and particularly sodium. That muscle cramp that you feel in your calf or your toes is most likely not from a potassium deficiency, believe it or not. More likely it’s a lack of sodium that’s cramping your style.
A study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed sodium consumption and cardiovascular events (heart attacks and stroke), and the researchers determined that health consequences were actually higher in individuals taking in less than 2,000 mg of sodium while the lowest risk was associated with consuming 5,000 mg per day (includes food plus supplementation). This is quite different from what conventional doctors and medical organizations are promoting, which raises a red flag. Sodium is not really the problem, but processed food definitely is.
So what’s the solution?
A healthy active person on a mostly real food diet should consider charging their day or recovering from a workout with electrolytes. There’s a multitude of electrolyte drinks and powders on the market these days, most of which unfortunately don’t make the cut when it comes to prioritizing the right ingredients and no added sugar. They’re typically full of a lot of unnecessary extras like food dyes.
Gatorade is notoriously the electrolyte drink that comes to mind, but sadly it has gone through a major transformation over the years and is more predominant in sugar than it is in electrolytes. The same is true for most commercial brands of electrolytes.
Something as basic as pickles or pickle juice can do the trick, but I recently discovered a product called LMNT that is convenient, portable and fits the criteria with a short ingredient list and no added sugar. These guys have done their research on the science, and formulated their product based on the fact that people eating more of a real food diet need to up their sodium intake with a small boost from magnesium and potassium to fill in the gaps. I love that scientific evidence fueled this brand, and it’s the most basic form of electrolytes, which means it can be built up with other ingredients to be tailored to your health and fitness goals. It’s also safe for kids, because there’s nothing but basic ingredients, so I even give it to my teenage athletes who are competing and practicing in the summer heat.
The bottom line is that there’s no exact answer or magic formula, but more importantly, being in tune with your unique set of circumstances coupled with your personal health and fitness goals will help you establish a plan that’s best for you.
Hydration is an important aspect of life that should be a priority in the context of your big picture nutrition and fitness plan. While water plays a critical role, it’s also important to consider electrolytes that work synergistically to optimize hydration, and specifically sodium, while often villainized, is likely the piece that gets overlooked. Sodium is not nearly the enemy that processed foods are, and it’s also a crucial part of hydration. Depending on your current diet and your health and wellness goals, you might actually benefit from incorporating more sodium into your diet, whether it’s from a convenient stick like LMNT, or a DIY method from pickle juice or another concoction. It’s been a game changer for me and also for my super active kids.
Hydration and electrolytes is a very hot topic and I’d love to explore it more if this resonated with you. You can find me on Instagram @allysonbalzuweit where I share lots of real time tips, recipes and more, or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org