Dehydration or Electrolyte Depletion?: Staying Healthy in Hot Yoga
It’s common sense that performance in a hot yoga class is closely linked to hydration. Try embracing the present when the present includes a splitting headache, a screaming calf, or debilitating fatigue.
Almost anyone who has practiced hot yoga has experienced some adverse symptom at one point or another related to dehydration- fatigue, extreme thirst, or muscle cramping. And anyone who has experienced these symptoms has probably heard a host of solutions and remedies from people: you need to drink more water, you need to buy x product, you need to eat more of x food … and the list goes on. But before you know which remedy to employ, you need to trace the problem back to its origins.
What really happens to your body during hot yoga? What is the difference between being dehydrated or experiencing electrolyte depletion? Are there different physical cues for each condition?
The importance of hydration is often taken as a given. But why is water so important for our bodies’ daily functioning and exercise performance?
Losing substantial amounts of water in one’s body is linked to a loss of blood volume. With lower blood volume, the heart has to work harder to move blood (and subsequently oxygen and all the other “good things” your body needs for exercise) through the bloodstream. By itself, dehydration can result in*:
- muscle cramping
*(particularly with very severe dehydration, there will be other symptoms, but I focus on the most likely ones to occur in the context of moderate to extreme exercise here)
We also regularly hear about the importance of replenishing electrolytes during forms of intense exercise that produce profuse sweating. But “electrolyte” is another of those terms that we often take for a given, without really exploring its importance. What even are electrolytes? As their name suggests, electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that assist in energy transfer throughout the body, maintaining cellular electrical charges, and basically helping cells perform necessary work to keep the body going.
Symptoms of electrolyte depletion include:
- muscle cramping
- unusually salty sweat
- excessive thirst
- craving salty foods/drinks
- double vision
- heart palpitation
The major electrolytes in our bodies include potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, chloride, and bicarbonate. Muscle cramping is a symptom of a deficiency of almost all of these, not just potassium (so stocking up on sources of potassium (like bananas) will not necessarily protect against cramping. Dark leafy greens, most nuts and seeds, greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, and quinoa are all foods that provide levels of (more than one) electrolyte , not to menton other nutritional value. Of course that is a tiny list, and a simple Google search will provide much more information on foods to help stock up on electrolytes if none of those float your boat.
But even eating a nutrious diet may not be enough to protect against the symptoms of electrolyte depletion, especially if you practice hot yoga regularly. When I go every day for a while, I notice symptoms like cramping and weakness coming on faster and more intensely than when my practice is spaced out. Some of the common ways to supplement electrolyte intake include nuun tablets, coconut water, Emergen-C packs (not just for sickness!), and Gatorade. It is worth noting, however, that many sports drinks like Gatorade are high in sugar, so use those sparingly. Coconut water is the most natural, and in my opinion, healthiest, of all those options, but some people do not feel it is as effective as manufactured sports drinks. It really comes down to personal preference.
My number one recommendation is to drink as much plain water as possible, eat lots of plants, and get plenty of sleep (because what doesn’t that help?).
Thanks for reading!