Do electrolytes give you energy

We all have times when we are feeling blah: a lack of energy. Could hydration be to blame? Or, more specifically, a lack of electrolytes? 

With all of the sports drinks and hydration products flooding the market, you may be curious when and if including one in your daily routine may boost sports performance and overall energy or assist with hydration.

I’m Angie, Registered Dietitian and sports nutrition expert. Growing up as an athlete in the 80’s, the only electrolyte beverage in town was Gatorade, reserved only for super sweaty high school football players during summer practice. 

Now, we are exposed to hundreds of electrolyte beverages in our grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and through online advertising. Questions about electrolytes and hydration products are some of the most common topics that come up for my clients in my private practice, and I enjoy helping them determine when and why (or why not) to include them. 

In this blog post, I’ll cover:

  • what exactly are electrolytes?
  • do electrolytes give you energy?
  • the role of electrolytes in our bodies
  • the importance of electrolytes for athletic performance
  • sources of electrolytes
  • practical tips for athletes and when you might need to supplement electrolytes

Let’s dig in!

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals in our body that have an electric charge. They are important for many bodily functions, including maintaining fluid balance, helping nerve cells to communicate, and regulating muscle contractions.

What is fluid balance? This means your body being able to move water to be in the right places in your body, in the right amounts. Our body can’t actually pump water inside each of your cells; your body can’t just turn on a tap and “fill up” a cell with water like you can fill up your favorite water bottle. Instead, water will follow electrolytes. So, for your body to be able to get water inside each cell, it shuttles the right electrolytes around like a lure, and the water follows. 

While sodium (salt) is probably the best-known electrolyte in our body, especially for maintaining fluid balance, there are actually seven altogether: 

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorous
  • Bicarbonate

So why are these charged minerals so dang important, especially for athletes? Is it because they give us energy? Let’s take a look. 

Do Electrolytes Give You Energy? 

Do electrolytes give you energy

So, with all the jobs that electrolytes perform, is one of them providing energy? 

Not really. 

Electrolytes themselves don’t provide direct energy; we get that from food (and measure that energy as calories). 

However, the proper balance of electrolytes makes it easier for us to use energy from food.  

Energy in our bodies comes from the breakdown of carbohydrates into smaller pieces that we can use for energy at the individual cellular level. 

If you’re dehydrated or you don’t have the right electrolyte levels, your body cannot convert the food you eat into those small molecules. Said another way, while electrolytes don’t give energy themselves, they do play an important role in our body’s ability to harvest energy from our food.

So while electrolytes don’t actually provide energy directly, they do a ton of important jobs in your body – let’s explore those next. 

Role of Electrolytes in our Bodies

Each electrolyte performs at least one job in our bodies if not more than one (I think we can all relate to wearing more than one hat, right?). 

Let’s look at some of the more specific ways that electrolytes help athletes. 

Sodium: the most abundant electrolyte found in the body. Along with performing other jobs, it is the primary helper in maintaining fluid balance in our bodies, which is critical to athletic performance.

Chloride: along with sodium, chloride helps maintain fluid balance and is also an essential part of hydrochloric acid (or stomach acid), which helps us digest food. 

Potassium: helps cells and muscles function properly, including contractions of your heart. Too much or too little can cause serious heart problems.

Calcium: essential for bone health, nerve signaling, muscle function, and blood clotting.

Magnesium is important in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including muscle and nerve function, blood glucose regulation, and muscle protein synthesis.

Phosphorus: works with calcium to maintain bone health, and it helps cells metabolize nutrients.

Bicarbonate: helps to regulate your body’s acid/base balance or the right amount of acidity or alkalinity in your body. Luckily, we can make our own bicarbonate in our bodies, which helps keep our body’s acid-base balance in check.

Importance of Electrolytes for Athletes

While electrolytes are very important, not everyone needs a sports drink or electrolyte packet. Adequate hydration and a balanced diet are usually sufficient for the average person to keep electrolyte levels in check. 

However, hard-working athletes, especially those performing in hot and humid conditions, can lose a significant amount of electrolytes with each sweat-drenched workout. 

Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost in sweat and the most important electrolyte we think about replacing for athletes. How much sodium is lost varies from person to person, with some athletes losing over 1000 mg of sodium per hour.

Excessive sodium losses can lead to dehydration, muscle cramps, fatigue, dizziness, and even heartbeat irregularities. This can lead to poor sports performance and potentially serious health consequences.

Sources of Electrolytes

Do electrolytes give you energy

Electrolytes are fairly abundant in our diets and are found in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dairy products, meat, and fish. 

For example, it seems to be fairly common knowledge that bananas are a good source of potassium, with a medium fruit providing about 400 mg. But bananas aren’t the only potassium show in town. Half of an avocado provides close to 500 mg of potassium, and 2 kiwi fruits provide 400 mg.

Aside from whole foods, most processed foods provide additional sodium and chloride as preservatives. This means everything from the bread you use for sandwiches to the salty pickle on the side is giving your body electrolytes. 

Aside from food, there are many electrolyte supplements available. 

Tips for Athletes: When do you need an electrolyte supplement?

Is your workout less than an hour? Probably not. 

Most of the time, plain water is all that is needed for hydration in training sessions that last under one hour. However, sometimes, athletes who are very “salty” sweaters will benefit from a sports drink that contains electrolytes even in shorter sessions.

How do you know if you are a salty sweater? Check your skin and clothing for white crystals after exercise in the heat; if you can see salt, you may be experiencing higher than normal losses.

Is your training session 60+ minutes? Probably yes. 

Almost all athletes will benefit from a sports drink that contains electrolytes for sessions that are over an hour, particularly in hot and humid conditions. Choosing a sports drink that contains both electrolytes and a carbohydrate source will be the best option for optimal hydration and provide energy for the workout.

Nail your electrolyte needs

Everyone is different. Some people easily drink a lot of fluid, and others really struggle to meet the bare minimum. Some people easily consume all the electrolytes they need from their regular food. Still, others have big sweat and electrolyte losses that are difficult to replace with food alone.

Good news: a dietitian can help you figure out your unique fluid and electrolyte requirements.

You may wonder what it’s like to work with a registered dietitian on your personal hydration and electrolyte goals. I’d say it depends on who you work with! Hopefully, you can tell from this blog post that I prioritize the science of hydration and electrolyte supplementation and am well-equipped to help you find the most personalized strategy to meet your unique needs. 

When we work together, we’ll be able to customize your fluid and electrolyte plan so that your hydration is on point AND you’re hitting your PRs left and right. Click here to request an appointment now.