Do electrolytes give you energy?

From the desk of
Robb Wolf
ScienceDo electrolytes give you energy?

“Electrolytes give you energy.” True or false?

It depends on what you mean by energy. No, electrolytes don’t provide protein, fat, or carbohydrates. They aren’t a substance of calories, and they’re not directly transformed into cellular energy (ATP) via cellular respiration.

But when most people speak of energy, they’re talking about a subjective feeling. They’re talking about feeling sharp and awake. By that definition, the answer is absolutely — electrolytes can help.

Now, obviously many things can sap your energy. If you had a late night, electrolytes aren’t going to shock you to life like a defibrillator. In those situations, a moderate amount of caffeine may be your friend. But electrolytes provide something even better.

Electrolytes are the driving force behind energy production in our cells, nerves, and muscles. They help provide stable energy throughout the day — and you feel the difference when you get it right. Not to mention, electrolyte status can influence your quality of sleep.

Suffice it to say that if your body is battling an electrolyte deficiency, your energy will not be optimal. In this article I’ll explain why, including electrolytes’ role in energy metabolism, nerve impulses, hormonal health, fluid balance, and more.

Electrolytes and Nutritional Energy

When nutrition scientists talk about energy, they’re either talking about calories or adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — the molecule which powers every last cell in your body.

A calorie (technically, a kilocalorie) is defined as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1°C. Practically speaking, calories measure the amount of energy stored in food. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat — the three primary macronutrients — provide this stored energy.

The process of unlocking that energy and turning it into ATP is called cellular respiration. Cellular respiration entails countless steps, substeps, and cofactors. So to avoid sapping your energy, I’ll cut to the chase: Cells use both oxygen and nutrients like glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids to create cellular energy (ATP).

No, electrolytes don’t provide stored energy. But turning calories into something our cells can actually use? That requires cellular respiration, and cellular respiration requires electrolytes. Let’s speak to a few electrolytes’ specific jobs throughout this process now.

Electrolytes in Energy Metabolism

Electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium support the complex reactions that produce ATP. Here are a few examples:

  • Magnesium. Magnesium is a cofactor in many reactions along the chain of steps required to synthesize ATP. Specifically, magnesium is involved in making the MgATP2 complex, a cofactor that activates enzymes needed to create ATP. Magnesium also regulates both potassium and calcium channels that influence energy metabolism.
  • Potassium channels. Potassium channels (which transport potassium in and out of a cell) help regulate heartbeat, cellular communication, the recycling of ATP, and much more. They’re critical infrastructure for your nervous system. Rising ATP levels stimulate potassium channels, provoking the secretion of insulin. Insulin helps you store energy as glycogen or body fat — so how you use energy depends on your potassium channels.
  • Calcium. Calcium activates a number of enzymes (like pyruvate dehydrogenase phosphatase) crucial for the Krebs cycle (one important step for cellular respiration).

Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz on this stuff. The point is that electrolytes are an essential contributor to our energy levels — and I’m not just talking about ATP production. While calcium and magnesium are more directly involved in the creation of ATP, sodium and potassium are the electrolytes we’ll focus on moving forward. Let’s take this beyond energy metabolism now.

Electrolytes and Subjective Energy

Electrolytes support an impressive number of functions in the human body. We’ve already talked about regulating energy metabolism. But they’re also responsible for conducting electricity for our nervous system, maintaining fluid balance, promoting restful sleep, producing and regulating hormones, regulating blood pressure, and facilitating muscle contractions.

Many of these functions directly or indirectly affect the subjective state we call energy. Let’s look at several more closely now.

Nervous system

For nerve cells to communicate — including brain cells — you need electrolytes. Sodium and potassium are particularly important for conducting electrical charges in your body, helping prime the electrical environment necessary to pass messages between cells.

You need to send these messages to move, breathe, think, and… to do anything at all, really. So if you short yourself on electrolytes, you short the system. For example, the symptoms of sodium deficiency and imbalance are neurological in nature. I’m talking about brain fog, headaches, and generally feeling like you’re dragging your body through mud.

Fluid Balance

Most think hydration is just about drinking water. In actuality, proper hydration is about maintaining fluid balance inside and outside your cells and tissues. This process depends on not just water, but electrolyte status too.

Sodium and potassium are the chief electrolytes responsible for fluid balance. Leaving them out of the equation is far from optimal. Many endurance athletes, for instance, run around wondering why they’re experiencing headaches, low energy, and fatigue. Those that consume too much sodium-free water may even unwittingly dilute their blood to the point of hyponatremia  (a very dangerous condition of low blood sodium levels).

Humans are about 60% water by weight, so it’s not surprising that fluid and electrolyte disruptions can affect perceived energy.

Hormonal Health

Hormones are chemical messengers that tell your cells what to do. Electrolytes regulate many hormones that factor into subjective energy.

To illustrate my point, consider that sodium deficiency can elevate cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline — stimulating hormones that can impair sleep. Not to mention, sodium deficiency may impair the secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), causing increased nighttime bathroom breaks. These hormonal effects on sleep are just a couple of ways electrolyte deficiency may influence your subjective energy.

For a deeper understanding of the relationship between sodium, potassium, magnesium, and your hormones, check out this article.

Low Sodium = Low Energy

Sodium might just be the most important electrolyte for energy, bar none. I see a lot of sodium deficiency and low energy in people who eat a low-carb diet, for instance. Why? Low-carbers who prioritize whole foods tend to be short on sodium because (1) whole foods diets aren’t naturally salty, and (2) low-carb diets expedite the loss of sodium through urine.

The resulting symptoms include fatigue, headaches, cramps, lethargy, and insomnia. In accordance, this phenomenon has been dubbed the keto flu. It sounds crazy simple, but I’ve seen it thousands of times now… When these folks bump up their sodium intake, their energy comes flooding back. I’ve even felt it myself.

Years ago, before we launched LMNT, I noticed my energy was starting to wane during jiu-jitsu training. I had already spent a ton of time dialing in my nutrition, so I didn’t tinker much there. I honestly began to wonder if I was just getting to “that age.” But when I mentioned my energy issues to my coaches, they gave me the following advice: “Get more electrolytes. Especially more sodium.”

It took me about a year, but I finally listened. And when I did, I immediately realized I should have listened sooner. Just a couple more grams of sodium each day made a massive difference for me. I believe electrolytes can be a game changer for a ton of people, not just those on a low-carb diet.

Check out this article to learn what factors may influence your electrolyte needs. And don’t take my word for it! Tinker with your electrolyte intake and see take note of your energy. You’ll feel the difference when you get it right.

Do Electrolytes Give You Energy?

Yes and no. Electrolytes don’t provide calories, but they do support a whole host of functions — energy metabolism, fluid balance, cellular communication, and hormonal health — which affect energy levels.

I wouldn’t call electrolytes an energy booster, but a lack of electrolytes will certainly sap your energy. Thankfully, it’s easy to prevent electrolyte deficiency with electrolyte-rich foods and electrolyte drinks like LMNT. That’s why we like to say — Stay Salty.

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