With tantalizing tales of easy weight loss serving as motivation, you decide to give intermittent fasting a try. And why not? Not only can restricting your calorie intake to a limited number of hours during the day—fasting for 14-16 hours is one of the most popular methods—lead to weight loss, research in animals and humans shows some pretty impressive physiological benefits, including:
- Hormone balancing
- Reduced oxidative stress
- Higher insulin sensitivity
- Lower levels of inflammation
- Increased resistance to stress
- Body fat breakdown (lipolysis)
And that’s not all. According to this study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, fasting also causes the body to eat itself. While that may not sound like a desirable attribute, this particular process is called “autophagy.” Think of autophagy as house cleaning within the cells. If you have significant pain and inflammation, autophagy can be a good thing. (Although, to be sure, autophagy is usually associated with fasts of more than 24 hours.)
In addition, intermittent fasting has been linked to reduced hypertension and the improvement of symptoms from several diseases, including autoimmune disorders.
But before you start intermittent fasting, keep in mind the potential challenges for newcomers. For example, if you’re used to eating from the early morning into the late-night hours, restricting calorie intake to, say, noon to 8 p.m. can be challenging. You might feel hungry and your energy might be low for the first few days.
One common piece of advice to overcome low energy in the morning is to take electrolyte supplements. Why are electrolytes important for fasting? And is taking an electrolyte supplement necessary?
Before answering the last question, let’s review the basic facts about electrolytes, just in case you weren’t paying attention in high-school chemistry class.
What are Electrolytes?
The chemistry textbook definition of electrolytes is “compounds which produce ions when dissolved in water.” Obviously, it’s much more complex than this simplistic definition, but let’s leave it at that.
From a dietary standpoint, electrolytes are minerals that dissolve in the body’s fluids, such as blood and water. And when electrolyte minerals are dissolved, they create electrically-charged ions. These pulses of electricity are the catalyst for your heart beat and pretty much every single other function in the human body.
You can think of electrolytes as spark plugs for the cell, activating nerve and muscle function. Without electrolytes, the vitamins from the food we eat would be unable to exert their physiological influences.
What Are The Most Important Electrolytes?
There are 7 main electrolytes we must get from food (or sports drinks such as Gatorade):
- Phosphate (phosphorous)
In addition, there are other electrolytes, including zinc, copper, iron, chromium, and manganese.
Let’s take a closer look at what some of the most important electrolytes are responsible for.
Sodium: Responsible for maintaining balance in and around the cells. It’s critical for muscle and nerve function as well as blood pressure. Low levels can result in muscle spasms and headaches.
- Potassium: Critical for nerve signaling and muscle fluid regulation. Many people believe that magnesium deficiency causes leg cramps but potassium is just as critical.
- Calcium: Far more than just a bone-builder; it’s responsible for normal heartbeat, blood clotting and muscle contraction.
Magnesium: Like potassium, plays a key role in maintaining nerve and muscle function. Also plays a vital part in sleep quality.
- Zinc: Too many functions to name here. Just a few include: maintaining a healthy immune system, producing testosterone, healing wounds, cuts and infections.
Does Fasting Deplete Electrolytes?
Yes. But most often, serious electrolyte depletion only occurs with prolonged fasts (over 24 hours). There’s plenty of research that demonstrates the consequences of fasting on electrolyte levels.
For instance, a study in Biological Trace Elements Research shows a significant reduction in serum sodium level (in patients with diabetes).
An interesting study was published in the International Journal of Endocrinology & Metabolism. It looked at the effects of intermittent fasting and exercise on observant Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, during which calories are not consumed from dawn to sunset. (The average length of time fasting during Ramadan is 11-16 hours.) The researchers discovered that exercising regularly during the month of Ramadan leads to significantly lower potassium levels.
A study in the American Journal of Medicine also observed rapid potassium excretion during the early part of fasting.
Are Electrolyte Supplements Necessary For Intermittent Fasting (12-16 Hours)?
In light of these findings above, should you take an electrolyte supplement, especially in the morning before you break the fast? There’s lots of anecdotal evidence online that taking a supplement can help prevent sluggishness.
But here’s the rub with electrolytes. Everybody is unique biochemically. Therefore, it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty that everybody who is doing intermittent fasting should or shouldn’t take an electrolyte supplement.
One of the best ways to accelerate weight loss while intermittent fasting is to engage in high-intensity cardiovascular exercise (or weight training) in the morning, before breaking the fast. If you break a sweat, and it’s still going to be a couple hours or so before you break your fast, then by all means, supplement with electrolytes.
That’s because if you sweat a lot, you’re going to lose a lot of sodium. So if you’re going to be breaking a serious shvitz, the most important electrolyte to replace is sodium. Although human sweat is 99% water, the 1% is sodium-rich.
Now let’s say you’re doing intermittent fasting and taking a hot yoga class. For every liter of sweat you lose, that’s 900mg of sodium lost. And if you don’t replace that sodium, you may feel dizzy or even lose consciousness.
What Are The Best Electrolyte Supplements?
Many electrolyte supplements come in the form of liquid trace minerals. Just pour a dropper full into water, stir and drink. The downside to liquid trace minerals is that they are often expensive. A cheaper alternative is adding a tablespoon of high-quality Himalayan sea salt to water. Check with your doctor if you have high blood pressure or heart disease if electrolyte supplements are safe for you.
If you don’t exercise in the morning or don’t sweat profusely, electrolyte supplements may be unnecessary. However, if you experience fatigue, lightheadedness or muscle cramping, they may be just what the doctor ordered.