By Mpho Masenya
Did you know that a healthy adult’s heart beats approximately 115 000 times per day?
The heart is the hardest working muscle in the body, and as one of the most complex organs, it sustains the essence of life.
The heart pumps blood throughout the body via the circulatory system, providing oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and removing carbon dioxide and other waste. Within 19 days of conception, the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) start to develop, and at around day 22, the heart gives that first life-confirming heartbeat.
Just as we have electricity conductors for the electricity running in our homes, the heart is reliant on electrolytes to sustain the organ’s electrical activity.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential bodily minerals that have an electric charge, and that always need to be kept in equilibrium. These electric charges are fundamental to several life-giving operations in the brain, nervous system, muscles (including the heart) and body tissues.
The primary electrolytes, each with an assigned function in your body, are sodium (Na), chloride (Cl), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), bicarbonate (CaHO3) and phosphorus (P).
Electrolytes & Heart Health
When it comes to matters of the heart, electrolytes help to stimulate the muscle contractions and electrical impulses that keep your heart beating. Sodium has an impact on blood pressure, and is necessary for muscle and nerve function, while bicarbonate regulates heart function and chloride helps to balance the electrolytes. Potassium, magnesium and calcium enjoy an interdependent relationship, and are key to maintaining the heartbeat.
The Heartbeat Trio
Potassium is central to both cellular and electrical function. It regulates the heart and blood pressure; collaborates magnesium and calcium; controls the transportation of calcium throughout the body; is necessary for muscle contraction and relaxation; assists the nerve impulses with electric charges; and helps to balance other electrolytes. A healthy adult should aim to consume about 3 500 to 4 700 mg potassium from food daily. It can be found in foods like spinach, beetroot, avocado, legumes (e.g. chickpeas) and fish (sardines, tuna and salmon).
Magnesium is necessary for maintaining electrical activity in the heart and brain. It controls the relaxation of the heart; regulates potassium, calcium and sodium; prevents blood clot formation; and prevents the heart blood vessels from undergoing muscle spasms, which reduces the risk of heart attacks. The recommended daily amount of magnesium for a healthy adult is 360 g for women and 400 g for men. Magnesium can be found in a variety of foods, including dairy, fresh produce, nuts, kale, spinach, beans, legumes and dark chocolate (80 % - 100 % cocoa).
Calcium is mostly found in your bones and teeth, but also plays an essential role in regulating the contractions of the heart muscle.
The recommended daily amount of calcium for a healthy adult is 1 000 mg for women and 1 200 mg for men. Calcium is present in dairy, dairy alternatives (soya yoghurt and almond milk), fresh produce (kale and broccoli), beans and fortified foods and beverages.
Absorb the Advantages
Unfortunately, ensuring that you have a mineral-rich diet that meets all the recommended daily intakes is not always enough to keep your body in tip-top shape. Your gut needs to absorb the minerals in order for you to really reap the benefits.
• About 90% of potassium is absorbed from the small intestine, after which the surplus is eliminated through urine or perspiration.
• After sweating heavily, you may need to replace your fluids with high-potassium beverages such as a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice or coconut water.
• Caffeine and alcohol have a diuretic effect, and will decrease the level of potassium in your system. Be sure to replenish the lost electrolytes when enjoying a regular brew of coffee.
• Studies have shown that only 30 – 40 % of magnesium is absorbed within the gut, after which some is excreted through the kidneys.
• Gastrointestinal disturbances such as chronic diarrhoea and celiac disease are large contributors to failed magnesium absorption.
• Other culprits that affect absorption are genetically modified food and medications.
• Stress, insomnia, fatigue and high sugar intake can all lead to a magnesium depletion.
• Phytates and oxalates reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
• Food preparation methods like fermentation, sprouting or marinating in lemon juice or raw apple cider vinegar of kefir before cooking may reduce the load of phytates, which can enable calcium absorption.
• Oxalates are found in spinach, beets, rice bran and rhubarb. Calcium absorption can be encouraged by boiling and steaming these foods before consumption.
Guard Your Heart
You can prevent an electrolyte imbalance by eating a healthy diet and drinking enough water. If your body struggles to absorb and retain electrolytes, consult with a healthcare professional before taking any additional supplements, especially if you already have existing heart or other chronic conditions.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
This wise old proverb still rings true today. Balance your electrolytes by staying in tune with your heart’s health, boosting your nutrition, and staying on the move.