Your body teems with electricity, albeit at a very low level. Calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are your primary electrolytes, meaning that each of these minerals carries an electrical charge that influences how they work and interact with cells.
An electrolyte imbalance or deficiency in these minerals can cause serious health problems, even death. For your heart to beat, calcium sends a charge that contracts your heart muscle, and magnesium sends a charge that relaxes it. When you exercise, you lose electrolytes in sweat, especially potassium and sodium. That’s why smart athletes are quick to replace this loss with electrolyte-containing sports drinks, such as potassium-rich coconut water.
“Sometimes people consume too much of one type of electrolyte, such as calcium or sodium, and not enough of others, such as magnesium and potassium,” says Michael Miles, NMD, of Tucson, Arizona. “It’s important to get enough of the latter through food or supplements.”
Electrolytes have myriad other functions, such as maintaining strong bones and the body’s fluid balance.
The body’s most abundant mineral, calcium is mostly found in bone. Bone isn’t a static tissue—old cells continuously get replaced with new cells and fresh calcium. However, some doctors question whether people take too much calcium. Thomas E. Levy, MD, author of Death by Calcium (Medfox, 2013), points out that vitamin C regulates the formation of the bone matrix (minerals and protein) and contends that low intake of this vitamin is a bigger factor in osteoporosis than low calcium.
Dose: The RDA for adults is 1,000–1,200 mg daily, but you can get much of that in foods, including vegetables and dairy. Consider modest supplementation, such as 500 mg daily of calcium citrate or carbonate. Add 5,000 IU vitamin D to aid calcium absorption.
Often overlooked, magnesium is the second most abundant mineral in bone. However, its roles are multifaceted, playing parts in more than 300 enzyme reactions affecting muscle production, nerve function, blood sugar regulation and blood pressure. Carolyn Dean, MD, medical director of the Nutritional Magnesium Association, points out that muscle twitches and spasms (think cramps or charley horses) are a common sign of magnesium deficiency. The mineral often helps with muscle tightness caused by stress and hyperactive behavior.
Dose: The RDA for adults ranges from 310–420 mg daily. A good target is 400 mg of magnesium daily in divided doses. Too much at once can have a laxative effect.
You lose a lot of potassium in sweat, and chronically low levels can contribute to hypertension and heart rhythm abnormalities. Unless you eat a lot of fruits and veggies—the richest potassium sources—there’s a good chance you’re low in this mineral. The problem can be compounded by taking loop diuretic drugs, which hasten potassium excretion. And drinking too many sugary cola drinks also depletes potassium, leading to muscle weakness, fatigue and in some cases paralysis. Taking potassium bicarbonate can counter osteoporosis, and it also reduces the body’s calcium loss.
Main minerals for balance
Relatively few mineral supplements emphasize the role of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium as electrolytes. That may be because these minerals have diverse roles in health.
That said, electrolytes do have a higher profile among sports supplements.
By Jack Challem for Delicious Living Magazine