We are told that we all need to cut back on the salt. And for most people – this is very prudent advice – especially those who are inactive or eating highly processed diets – which generally delivers too much salt. Excess dietary salt can increase blood pressure, which is linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks, and can also strain the kidneys. Cutting back on sodium and increasing the intake of potassium-rich foods could reduce stroke by 21% studies show. (Read: Shifting the balance of sodium and potassium).
But is a ‘healthy low salt diet‘ – truly healthier for everyone?
Certain people might actually need a little more sodium than they are getting – including those suffering from adrenal fatigue/hypofunction, chronically low blood pressure, and endurance athletes.
Sodium is an Electrolyte
Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride – which are two important electrolytes. Electrolytes are electrically charged ions in our blood – they regulate our fluids balance, blood pressure, are needed for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles, and energy production – they are kind of like our ‘spark plugs.’ When an athlete works out – they sweat – which means they lose fluids and electrolytes. So if an athlete gets depleted of electrolytes (including sodium) – they could start to feel fatigued, weak, sore and generally could run out of steam. If allowed to progress – it can become more serious, even dangerous.
If an athlete has worked out hard for more than an hour – especially in hot conditions – plain water is not likely enough to properly and fully rehydrate. In fact, guzzling a lot of plain water when someone is dehydrated can lead to a condition called hyponatremia – which is a low concentration of sodium in the blood. Generally chronic hyponatremia (which develops more gradually) produces milder symptoms, while the acute type can be very serious, potentially leading to brain swelling and coma. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A normal sodium level is between 135 and 145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L). Hyponatremia occurs when sodium levels fall below 135 mEq/L.”
Dehydration can cause muscle aches/cramps, headache, and nausea. If caught early when symptoms are mild, these generally will respond to a rehydration drink or salty/mineral-rich foods paired with water. But if an athlete displays any signs of serious dehydration or hyponatremia – including disorientation, slurred speech, weakness, or strange behavior – seek medical treatment immediately as it can be a life-threatening situation.
Some signs you could be deficient in organic sodium – muscle weakness, spasms, or cramping; loss of flexibility; headaches/migraines; heart burn or digestive issues; stiff or painful joints; fatigue; restless legs; osteoporosis; and hardening of the arteries.
Not all salt is created equal
Foods with naturally occurring organic sodium or a high quality unprocessed salt like pink Himalayan, Celtic, or Real Salt brand are not the same as table salt. Processed table salt typically has anti-caking agents, and processing removes all of the trace minerals, which makes the remaining sodium and chloride less bio-available to the body – and it is more difficult to excrete excesses too. It may not be possible to always get the good quality salt – but it is the only kind we use in our house. Note: unprocessed salt generally should have some color – pink, grey, etc. Potassium-rich foods help to balance out our sodium levels.
The best thing for an athlete to do – is to follow the good ole’ boy scout motto – and be prepared. Come to your workouts and competitions well-hydrated, and have everything you need in your bag to stay that way.
Products to consider packing in your bag:
You could also make your own homemade sports drink by combining 8 oz water (or coconut water), with 8 oz. fresh juice (such as orange), 1/8 tsp high quality salt (300 mg of sodium), and 1/2 tsp honey or your favorite natural sweetener. Here are some other homemade sports drink recipes to consider trying too.
Some other considerations:
Research shows that the majority of kids today are chronically dehydrated, with 1/4 drinking no water all day long! Young athletes need to take their hydration seriously. One reason that kids may not be drinking enough water – is because they are not thirsty! You might find that adding a little more sodium-rich foods to the diet can help to re-stimulate the thirst mechanism. On hot days, I often put a small pinch of Real Salt in my kids water bottle that they bring to school, especially the morning after a hard workout. I also like to use a trace mineral supplement called SpectraMin which contains 63 ionic trace minerals and helps support hydration, it also pairs well with a product called Rehydration – which together helps to encourage thirst and get the fluids and electrolytes into the cells.
Some additional reading/articles:
During the hot Summer months is important to stay on top of hydration. Up to 75% of the body is made up of water, so drinking enough fluids is essential for our bodies to function properly. Dehydration occurs when too many fluids are lost, not enough are taken in, or a combination of the two.
Certain factors such as sweating, hot climate, vomiting, medications can quickly accelerate fluid loss to cause acute dehydration. It is important to be familiar with the signs of dehydration, especially parents and coaches as kids can get dehydrated faster than adults. Taking these symptoms seriously is important, as complications from severe dehydration can be life-threatening. Relying on thirst is not always ideal, as thirst is not always a good indicator of dehydration.
Chronic dehydration is not like acute dehydration, in that it typically occurs from regularly not taking in sufficient hydrating fluids and/or foods. Often the symptoms are not recognized as dehydration at all and can range from bothersome to serious and can include constipation, headaches, low energy, elevated cholesterol, and more. Although controversial, some theories link Rheumatoid arthritis and other serious conditions to chronic dehydration. People suffering from one or more of the above symptoms, might try gradually increasing their intake of fluids and foods with a high water content and notice if there is an improvement in their symptoms over a period of time. Regularly drinking caffeinated, sugary or alcoholic beverages can also lead to chronic dehydration, as all are diuretics. Chronic dehydration can also make us more prone to acute dehydration from a workout and/or sweating.
Dehydration and Heart Attack
Studies have found that a loss of 2% or more of one’s body weight due to sweating can cause a drop in blood volume – so the blood essentially becomes “thicker.” When this occurs, the heart has to work harder to move blood through the bloodstream, raising the risk of a heart event. Because we are not replenishing fluids while we sleep, people tend to be slightly dehydrated in the morning, which could explain why heart attacks are 40% more likely to occur in the morning. Blood thickening also causes muscle cramps, dizziness, fatigue, heat exhaustion/ heatstroke, and can even lead to swelling of the brain and hypovolemic shock. A tip for people that like to drink coffee in the morning – fill up your coffee cup with water while the coffee is brewing – before you can pour yourself a cup of coffee, you need to drink the water in the cup. Starting the day with a glass or coffee cup of water will hydrate you better than the coffee.
When Do you Need Electrolytes?
Electrolyte replacement is needed when someone loses measurable amounts of fluids from one reason or another (sweating, vomiting, etc). How do we know how much fluid we have lost? One way to tell if there is fluid loss is to weigh yourself before and after a workout, if you have lost weight, there has been fluid loss. Typically 2 cups of fluid accounts for approximately each pound of weight lost. But if it is not convenient to weigh yourself, you need to consider the following: did you exert yourself hard, sweat a lot, maintain fairly continuous movement over a period of time? Was it a hot or particularly dry day? Are you working out in high altitude? Did you drink enough water leading up to the activity, or do you tend to be chronically dehydrated? If there has been a significant amount of fluid lost – there will be sodium, potassium and other important minerals also lost. Plain water will not replace those lost minerals. A condition called Hyponatremia can happen when someone loses a lot of fluids and drinks lots of water without replenishing electrolytes – there is not enough sodium in the blood. But if there was NOT a lot of sweating and it was a fairly low intensity sport, or a sport with lots of breaks (sat in a dugout, or stood in the outfield a lot) – then plain water should be fine to stay hydrated.
For endurance athletes, prehydrating the body for as much as 3 days before a tournament can help to prepare the body for a major sports event. Drinking an extra glass of fluid each day over a 3 day period can help to hydrate the body and muscles. Even slight dehydration in the muscles can negatively affect performance. Increasing the carbohydrates 3 days before a big sports event is also helpful to help prepare the body’s glycogen stores for the activity.
After a very intense workout, glycogen stores get depleted in the muscles, – in addition to replacing electrolytes, many sports drinks contain some form of sugar because it is a fast-acting carbohydrate that can quickly replenish lost glycogen. So endurance and intensity athletes that want to quickly replace lost energy after an intense workout – might use sports gels or drinks – which offer the electrolytes and fast acting carbohydrates they need.
But consuming sports drinks when the body has not exerted itself and does not “need them,” the carbohydrates/sugar can end up getting stored as fat overtime. A 20 oz. sports drink contains 125 calories and 35 grams of sugar – which is over 9 teaspoons – more than the recommended daily limit for added sugars for one day for kids. Studies show that over-consumption of sports drinks is linked to weight gain and an increase in cavities in children.
Another concern are the artificial colors many sports drinks contain – they serve no other purpose than to make them more “fun.” There is some evidence that some kids are sensitive to artificial coloring – potentially causing ADHD-like symptoms, or making them worse. So it is important to read labels to know what is in the sports drinks, when there is a color and a number – that means it contains artificial coloring.
If someone is showing signs of dehydration – grab them any sports drink – dehydration is very serious and it is not the appropriate time to debate about the drawbacks of artificial colors or sugar.
Artificially Sweetened Drinks
Many people choose artificially sweetened sports drinks to avoid the sugar and calories. But the artificially sweetened ones will not replenish the lost glycogen – so the only purpose the artificial sweetener serves is for taste. There is evidence that artificial sweeteners might have negative health consequences, read The Truth About Aspartame, MSG and Excitotoxins – an interview with Dr. Russell Blaylock. I do not recommend them to adults or children. There are much better alternatives out there now.
Alternative Electrolyte Replenishers:
If you want an electrolyte replenisher, but don’t want the added sugar, artificial sweeteners, and artificial coloring, there are some cool products available:
Soft Drinks & Alternatives
Soft drinks are not a good choice for hydration, for a number of reasons:
When you want a soda, try making your own “Fruit Fizzy.” Squeeze your favorite citrus juice into a glass, squeeze in some Natures Agave clear nectar, and pour some sparkling water – voila! An antioxidant-rich homemade soda! If you can’t make your own fruit sodas, I like IZZE-esque – which only has 50 calories and is made with sparkling water and real fruit juice. Or if you want something calorie free, quick and on the go – try Metromint – is pure water and 100% real mint, which creates a unique cooling sensation that relieves your thirst, soothes digestion, and revives your body. They come in a variety of minty flavors – even chocolate mint!
Some foods can help hydrate and replace lost minerals, to mention a few:
The Dangers of Dehydration, Natural News
Your Body’s Many Cries for Water by Dr. Fereydoon Batmandhelidj