Carbohydrate or Electrolyte Replacement. What’s Right for You?
By Nina Anderson, Specialist in Performance Nutrition (ISSA)
Sports drinks are everywhere today, being consumed in the workplace, at home, and in the car as well as before, during, and after exercise. They are outperforming other beverage segments as more choices are being offered each day. While there may be a place for all within the sports arena, on closer examination, the drinks are used for completely different purposes. Electrolyte replacement drinks are designed to replace the fluids (water) and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chromium, manganese, etc.) lost during exercise. Carbohydrate drinks are the acceptable choice for instant energy during strenuous exercise and muscle recovery afterwards. Many carbohydrate drinks may also include electrolytes. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, consuming adequate food and fluid before, during, and after exercise can help maintain blood glucose levels during exercise, maximize exercise performance, and improve recovery time. Athletes should be well hydrated before beginning exercise and should also drink enough fluid during and after exercise to balance fluid losses.
Not all sports-minded people need carbohydrate drinks, but most of them need electrolyte replacement. According to the International SportsMedicine Institute, many Americans are dehydrated, even before exercise, because they don’t drink enough water. The average person normally loses between 3-6 liters from normal bowel and urinary elimination. Moisture is also lost just from breathing. Some of the more obvious signs of low water levels in your body include headaches and fatigue. Sports endurance will be compromised as dehydration worsens. Heart rate increases and oxygen (and nutrient delivery to the muscles) can drop 10 percent even with mild exercise like hiking. Unreplaced water losses equal 2 percent of body weight and will impact heat regulation. At 3 percent loss there is a decrease in muscle cell contraction times and when fluid losses equal 4 percent of body weight there is a 5-10 percent drop in overall performance, which can last up to four hours. Lost with this fluid are electrolytes and essential minerals. Mineral replacement is essential to helping restore proper blood volume and blood sugar levels, and is necessary for enzymatic reactions that promote proper blood volume. Without them the quality of performance during long-term or explosive short-term exercise decreases.
Trying to get people to drink lots of water is not always easy. Most prefer juice or soda pop or sports drinks that include high-caloric sugars (glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, cereal starches) as carbohydrates. These are not recommended for dieters or diabetics and may not be beneficial in electrolyte drinks because the added sugar needs to be broken down by the digestive system thus delaying electrolyte absorption. When your body wants water, it wants it immediately, and carbohydrates may actually interfere with water absorption.
As stated in the book Analyzing Sports Drinks, to receive benefit from electrolytes, the body must be able to utilize the minerals. Dr. George Earp-Thomas, research scientist, who along with a team of researchers funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, conducted a worldwide study on soil microbes and minerals. He discovered that when combined, different inorganic minerals from decaying rock were not always compatible with each other. He finally added the Foulhorn bacteria, found on the surface of mineralized rocks beneath the sea. This allowed the mineral mixture to become stable. He discovered that this bacteria would make new compounds, thus transforming the elements into an organic mineral compound that could be readily absorbed by the body. Minerals in an organic form are best utilized by the body. Two supplements using this procedure for their organic mineral formulas, are liquid Trace-Lyte (www.foreveryoungcooperative.com) and ElectroBlast concentrates (www.electroblast.com). Formulations with too many trace-minerals in combination can actually prevent electrolyte formation because they can compete with one another for absorption. Too few trace-minerals in a drink are unable to form the proper electrolyte balance for the minerals to be able to enter the cell and maximize rehydration. These are important considerations when purchasing electrolyte products
A major part of the sports drink market is geared towards carbohydrate drinks. Carbohydrates are the considered the principal dietary source of energy. Muscle cells store limited amounts of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a high-energy phosphogen, and depend upon metabolic pathways to provide sufficient ATP for muscle function during activity. Power events of short duration require the rapid hydrolysis of ATP for energy, which is significantly depleted within10-20 seconds of high-intensity activity, thereby limiting its use as a source for energy. Carbohydrate drinks are useful in these circumstances, In exercise of longer duration hydration is primary. The source of carbohydrate extraction from the energy pool may shift from the ATP muscle glycogen pool to circulating blood glucose. If blood glucose cannot be maintained, performance will decrease. Fat contributes to the energy pool, but the portion of energy from fat decreases as exercise intensifies. Protein also contributes to the energy pool, but probably provides less than 5 percent of the energy expended although it may contribute to the maintenance of blood glucose. During exercise if a hydration sports beverage is taken and is too high in carbohydrate content (normally glucose or sugar), it will increase the time it takes the stomach to empty. This prolongs the time for absorption and reduces the ability of the drink to instantly satisfy rehydration needs.
Replacing the glycogen lost from muscles in the first two hours after exercise is the primary usage for carbohydrates during heavy exercise. Glucose and sucrose are the carbohydrates of choice and considered twice as effective as fructose in restoring muscle glycogen. However, the role of adequate glycogen resources in preventing muscle cramps is speculative and still being debated. According to Dr. Zakir Ramazanov, Ph.D., who is one of the foremost biochemists and molecular biologists in the world, there is an alternative for long-term stamina. “Sports and fitness enthusiasts consider carbohydrates the best source of energy, when they actually are a relatively poor source. Glucose is considered a fast, easy source of energy. Fatty acids are the richest source of energy. In fact, fatty acids play a greater role in supporting the energy demands of the body during long-term exercise than glucose alone.”
During times of high physical activity, energy and macronutrient needs must be met, and fat intake should be adequate to provide essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins for energy. When more fat is burned, less muscle glycogen is used. This “glycogen sparing” effect aids endurance because glycogen stores are limited, but fat stores are abundant. Maintaining a higher fatty-acid base will enforce the muscles without excessive carbo-loading. Dr. Ramazanov suggests supplementing your diet with an herb grown in the mountains of Russia, Rhodiola rosea. This herb has shown to raise the levels of fatty acids found in the blood, thereby significantly increasing muscle ATP and creatine phosphate levels. Research is also underway on Glycerol, a 3-carbon nonintoxicating alcohol, a product of triacylglycerol (free fatty acids), which is used in the body’s citric acid cycle of aerobic energy metabolism. Glycerol enhances hydration in muscles, thereby reducing fatigue and need for continued carbohydrate ingestion. In studies on athletes, it has shown to increase their total body water by nearly 2.5 percent which helped them adapt to heat during extended exercise. Staying hydrated is essential to performance.
It is the choice of the consumer to pick a product that works for them and tastes good. There is a place for carbohydrate sports drinks as a supplement to electrolyte replacement drinks, but they are not interchangeable. You may use carbohydrate drinks in addition to electrolyte replacement drinks, but at different times in relation to the intended sports activity.
- excerpted from: Analyzing Sports Drinks, Safe Goods Publishing, (888) NATURE-1.