We're all pretty much familiar with electrolytes thanks to the geniuses who developed Gatorade. But what exactly is an electrolyte, and why are they so important? And how can you replenish your body's supply without consuming sugary-sweet beverages loaded with ingredients you can't pronounce?
Much ado is made about electrolytes, with good reason. Without an adequate supply of these essential salts (medically, known as ions) and minerals our bodies would literally shut down. Simply put, electrolytes help to regulate the "amount of water in your body, the acidity in your blood (pH), your muscle function, and other important processes," according to the National Institutes of Health Medicine Plus website.
The most common electrolytes include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium. When we sweat, urinate, or suffer bouts of vomiting or diarrhea, we lose electrolyes, which can lead to dehydration, a dangerous imbalance of minerals or other serious complications, and even death.
Gatorade was invented in 1965 by four University of Florida physicians, as a way of keeping the school's football players hydrated and healthy on the field. The sports drink industry was born, and today, it seems like every month there's a new electrolyte-replenishing product on the market.
The problem with many of them (besides their godawful taste; anyone remember Gatorade gum?) is that they're loaded with sugar, dextrose, sucrose, artificial colors and flavors, and other nastiness.
Image: Max Westby
Living as I do in Colorado, I've developed an interest in finding more palatable, healthy alternatives to electrolyte replenishiment, because I'm active. A day of hiking at high altitude in hot weather, or skinning up a snowy mountain in winter requires serious hydration, as well as the occasional energy boost. Rehydrating post-workout is equally important.
One of my favorite electrolyte sources is actually from Colorado (Steamboat Springs, to be exact), and scores bonus points for its convenience. Honey Stingers organic energy chews are addictively squishy, gluten and GMO-free, gumdrop-like gels made with organic tapioca syrup, organic evaporated cane juice, organic honey, pectin, and other natural ingredients. They come in lush, fruity flavors sold in packets of 10 (suggested use: five to 10 chews per hour of vigorous activity, and they deliver a kick when you're fatigued). I always keep several stashed in pockets, purse, and backpack. The company has recently expanded its line to include gels and energy bars, as well.
Coconut water is all the rage, especially amongst celebs (exactly why is a mystery to me, unless they're also using it as a hangover cure—something I swear by). And while I certainly don't consider Hollywood endorsement a selling point, I also can't stop touting the virtues of coconut water.
A friend turned me on to it after a late night four years ago, and after I did a bit of investigating, I learned why coconut water is so helpful at easing the pain of a brutal bender. It's of the best sources of electrolytes found in nature. Now, of course, you can buy flavored and other spendy designer versions. I recommend experimenting, as the taste may vary brand to brand; some are sweeter than others (I've found the imported versions, usually sold in cans, tend to be the most intensely flavored). I chill my coconut water to make it more palatable.
Image: Alex Masters
Recently, I wrote a magazine article about hay growing and harvesting in the 19th century (really). In my research, I learned about switchel, a vinegar-water-based beverage popular as a summer drink in colonial America. Switchel's origins are hazy, but many researchers believe it originated in the Caribbean. It's traditionally sweetened with either honey, molasses, brown sugar, or maple syrup, depending upon the region. It became known by its other name, haymaker's punch, because farmers would drink it to rehydrate (and thus replace electrolytes) during the summer hay harvest.
Curious, I found a switchel recipe online, and tested it out after a long hike. Granted, I love vinegar and could drink the stuff straight up, but I found the switchel, which was sweetened with honey, bracing, with a sweet, perfumey finish enhanced by the fresh grated ginger the recipe called for. Just shake it up in a Mason jar and keep it stored in your refrigerator for post-workout refreshment.
Top image: fivehanks