Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Electrolytes, Balanced pH & The Athlete

Electrolytes make substances electrically conducive. All known higher lifeforms require a subtle and complex electrolyte balance between the interior and exterior of cells. Electrolyte balance affect and regulate the hydration of the body as well as blood pH, and are critical for nerve and muscle function. The primary electrolytes in the body are sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Various mechanisms exist within the body to keep the concentrations of different electrolytes under tight control. Both muscle tissue and neurons are considered electric tissues of the body and therefore require electrical impulses to flow throughout, electrolytes allow these electrical impulses to take place. Muscles and neurons are activated by electrolyte activity. For example, muscle contraction is dependent upon the presence of calcium, sodium, and potassium, all electrolytes. Without sufficient levels of these key electrolytes, muscle weakness or severe muscle contractions may occur.

Proper pH balance is a key component of good health and vital to athletic performance. pH is measured on a 14-point scale, with 7 being neutral. The lower the pH value, the higher the acidity; the higher the pH value, the more alkaline. pH values vary throughout systems in the human body, however blood pH is tightly regulated. Optimal human blood pH is slightly alkaline at a reading of about 7.4. To maintain the needed blood pH balance, acid wastes must be removed from the body or neutralized, to bring the blood back to 7.4. The body has numerous ways to flush acidic wastes out of the system including; breathing to remove carbon dioxide, the kidneys to filter blood and excrete acids through urine and the skin to sweat acids out of the body. The body also uses these same electrolytes, sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium, to buffer acids in the blood. Maintaining a 7.4 pH is a important indicator to long lasting good health but also to increased athletic performance. When the body pH becomes too acidic the enzyme activity in the body is thwarted, when enzyme activity is thwarted so is energy production at a cellular level, translating to lower energy levels and lowered athletic performance.

Dr. Robert Burns discusses what else occurs in the body when exercise throws body pH out of balance. Most serious athletes are familiar with the phenomenon known as “muscle burn.” Muscle burn is largely the result of lactic acid which indicates hydrogen ion buildup in the system. Acid concentration increases when an athlete exceeds what is called the “lactate threshold,” the point at which the body can no longer flush or neutralize acid wastes as fast as they are being produced. When an athlete crosses the lactate threshold for a sustained time, acid accumulates in the muscles and can lead to cramping, severely compromising athletic performance. Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid is not, in and of itself, the cause of acidosis. However, elevated levels of lactic acid in the system are an indicator of lactic pH imbalance.

Prolonged aerobic exercise is not the only contributing factor to acidosis. Diet and aging also play key roles. As we age, the systems that rid the body of acid waste don’t work as efficiently. Furthermore, the western world’s diet, with its overemphasis on animal protein, fats, processed sugar and flours, is likely a contributing factor in acidosis. Because elite and endurance athletes often burn through exponentially more calories than the average person does in a day (a 175-pound athlete can burn approximately 6,000-8,000 calories in the course of a 60-mile bike race alone), they should be particularly concerned with pH balance and dietary health. Also, the endurance athlete’s often-accelerated intake of protein and carbohydrates can produce surplus acids. (1)

Electrolytes are lost both through sweating and through buffering acidic metabolic acids during exercise. Lowered electrolyte levels mean lowered muscle and nerve functioning, all resulting in lowered athletic performance. Replacing electrolytes naturally is easy and comes through foods and drinks we bring into our body.

Natural sources of sodium include seaweed, celery and vegetables. Natural sources of potassium include most fruits and vegetables. Calcium is plentiful in leafy green vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.

Natural Electrolyte Sources:

Electrolyte content of some foods (note 100 g is about 3.5 oz)
mg/100g                                 Na        Cl         K
Wheat flour (whole)                    2         38     290
Rice (polished, raw)                    6         27     110
Potatoes                                    3         79     410
Carrots                                    50         69     311
Apricots                                   0.6        —      440
Dates (dried)                              1       290     790
Oranges                                     1          3     170
Bread (whole meal)                 540       860     220
Bananas                                     1        93     467 
Coconut Water                         18       15     220

Coconut water is the very best natural sports drink because it is naturally high in all the electrolytes including 220mg potassium, 18mg calcium and 15mg of sodium. Coconut water is a natural rehydrator and the perfect drink before, during and after any intense work out.

Citrus fruits are naturally high in electrolytes. Do you remember the lemon used as a battery science experiment in school? If not, here is a recap. A lemon can be used as a battery to light a light bulb because of its ability to conduct electricity. Often you see athletes eating orange slices. Not only are they high in water content, they are also high in needed electrolytes. 

At Align Holistic Health & Well Being we offer individualized athletic nutrition plans which will take all of your individual qualities and biochemical make-up into consideration to develop a nutrition plan that supports you in reaching your health goals and intentions. Contact us today to get started on your own Individualized Athletic Nutrition Plan.


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