The manufacturers of sports drinks have a clear message: their products are a critical part of a healthy lifestyle, providing essential electrolytes for anyone who sweats even a little bit. But what are electrolytes, exactly? Are they really that important?
The five most important electrolytes are potassium, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. They are minerals that break into small, electrically-charged particles (called ions) as you digest them. They help your muscles respond and your nerves transmit messages.
Most exercise is mild enough that you only need water afterwards; the electrolytes that you lose are naturally replenished by a healthy diet. However, if you are an endurance athlete, pregnant, or sick, you may be a little low on these important minerals. Unfortunately, any electrolytes you absorb from sports drinks are accompanied by a lot of unhealthy ingredients, like tons of sugar, artificial colors, and chemicals. Luckily, there’s a better solution: there are wonderfully natural sources of all the major electrolytes you need!
1. Coconut Water
Coconut water is harvested from young coconuts. It is incredibly hydrating and makes a great natural energy drink all by itself. It is rich in all five electrolytes, replenishing the minerals you lose when you sweat or have a fever. As a bonus, it also contains other healthy vitamins (such as B vitamins and other antioxidants), and it is anti-inflammatory, which means it can help to reduce swelling in feet and joints that can be caused by exercise and loss of sodium.
To make an even more complete natural sports drink, you can combine coconut water with other electrolyte-rich ingredients. Try making a smoothie out of coconut water, strawberries, celery, sea salt, and honey.
2. Nut butter
Nut butters are high in most electrolytes, especially sodium, magnesium, and phosphorus. They are also high in protein and easy to digest, which make them a great, easy snack after strenuous workouts or when you are too sick to eat very much.
A spoonful of nut butter will give you a quick electrolyte boost, or you can use it as an ingredient in electrolyte-filled smoothies. For example, try blending your nut butter with almond milk, leafy greens, and low-sugar fruits like blueberries.
Bananas are best known for being high in potassium, a key electrolyte is needed to prevent muscle cramps and fatigue. They’re also full of magnesium, and they’re gentle on sensitive stomachs (making them a good choice for people who are having trouble keeping food down due to illness or pregnancy).
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Banana makes a great post-workout snack, but if you’ve been sweating hard then it won’t provide all the electrolytes you need. Bananas are especially low in sodium and calcium, so try mixing them with other foods to get a complete electrolyte source. You can blend a banana into a smoothie with yogurt and spinach, or try it on top of a whole grain bagel with nut butter.
4. Lemon Water
Finally, citrus juices (the fresh-squeezed kind, not the packaged kind that’s full of added sugar) are great electrolyte sources and very hydrating. Lemons are especially high in potassium and magnesium, though they also contain some calcium and sodium. You can mix fresh lemon juice with water, sea salt, and honey to make a refreshing natural energy drink. To really boost your electrolyte intake, replace the water with coconut water.