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You Ask, I Answer: Electrolytes & Exercise

Posted Dec 16 2009 10:00pm

gatorade-20-oz-line-up1I was working out the day before yesterday in the gym.  Ran for about 30 minutes, did my ab sets, cooled down, stretched, put on my fuzzy, went outside and woke up on the ground with people around me.

I just got real dizzy and went down.  I felt better within about 30 minutes.  I got a nice ambulance ride over to the clinic, where they decided that the problem is I don’t replace my electrolytes.

I don’t like Gatorade and I prefer plain water, so that is what I drink.  I’m well hydrated, so it’s not simply a matter of not drinking enough.

I went to the store to track down some stuff to put in my water that will add electrolytes without the sugar and calories.  They all are basically some sodium and a tiny bit of potassium.  Is this right?  Have I got the right stuff?  It just seems like such a small thing.  I have a really good diet and it seems like I should be getting enough of this stuff from what I eat.

Just for background, I swim four times a week, work out in the gym about 3 times a week.  I drink water all day, and I always have some with me both at the pool and in the gym.

I’ve lost about 20 pounds since I got here in August.  I don’t have any way to measure my body fat, but I’m still soft and girly, not boney, so I can assure you I’m not in any danger of starving to death.

Do you have a preferred electrolyte supplement?  Is this something I should even be concerned with?

– Quinn (last name withheld)
Baghdad, Iraq

Since the doctors who treated you specifically mentioned an electrolyte imbalance, I am going to guess you experienced mild hyponatremia.

Hyponatremia is a condition where the body’s sodium concentration levels are diluted as a result of drinking too much water.

Although hyponatremia is usually only seen in endurance athletes engaged in long bouts of intense exercise (ie: triathlon competitions), it can also happen in other situations.

The fact that you “drink water all day” is a bit of a red flag, and here is why:

Since you exercise often, and live in a part of the world that gets extremely high temperatures (although mainly from May to October), you sweat more than a more sedentary individual who lives in a cooler climate.

Remember : sweat is mainly a combination of water and two electrolytes — sodium and chloride.

One of the causes behind hyponatremia is when high amounts of sweat are only replaced with water, and not sufficient sodium.

In fact, research has shown that a mere two percent of overhydration can result in this condition.

Also worth keeping in mind — some individuals’ sweat contains higher concentrations of sodium, which can also increase hyponatremia risk.

The issue here isn’t to increase salt or potassium, but simply to be mindful of excessive fluid intake — both before and during exercise!  By the way, sports drinks contain minimal amounts of sodium that will do absolutely nothing to help prevent this condition.

Since you mentioned twenty-pound weight loss, I would also recommend keeping track of what you eat for three days and then determine how many average calories, milligrams of sodium, and milligrams of potassium you are getting.

It may very well be that apart from overhydrating, your diet is not meeting some of these requirements.

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