Electrolyte Depletion

“Why Do I Feel Sick In Class?”

You have a rough class. It begins with a headache. Then you feel a bit dizzy. You take a knee, you decide to sit out a posture, take a break. You get up and try another posture, you sit down again. You start to feel nauseated, you wonder if you’ll need to run out of the room to vomit. You’re worried now, “what’s wrong with me?” By the end of class you are absolutely wiped out. When you come out of the hot yoga room to talk to the teacher, you are convinced there is something terribly wrong.

“Maybe I ate too close to class.” “Maybe I need more water.” “Maybe I have the flu!”

What you are experiencing is an electrolyte imbalance.

If you haven’t already read our Bikram Yoga Survival Guide posts on Electrolytes, do it now. I’ll wait.

Honestly, this topic makes me a bit ranty.

The single most common complaint I hear from students is a variation of what I described above: headache and/or dizziness and/or nausea.

The three most common signs of electrolyte imbalance are:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea

The fourth is

  • muscle cramps

When students come to me after class, describing these classic signs of electrolyte imbalance, I ask questions:

“Do you drink plain or filtered water only in class?”

“Do you take any medications that might be diuretics?”

“Does your doctor have you on a salt-restricted diet?”

If there are no other health issues in play (salt-restricted diet, chronic health issues or medications creating water & electrolyte imbalance, etc.), usually the issue is twofold:

  1. Drinking plain water, which – along with sweating – flushes out minerals (electrolytes) instead of replenishing them.
  2. Trying to “eat better” – whole foods, less packaged foods, eating more meals at home, which usually means LOW SODIUM!

Do you see the problem?

If you are flushing out & sweating out electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphorus) and you are not replenishing them (with food or with supplementation), you will develop an electrolyte imbalance (in this case, a low mineral state, electrolyte depletion).

Mild hyponatremia in an otherwise healthy person is not uncommon for regular practitioners of hot yoga. This is a state of LOW SODIUM levels in the blood. If you are trying to eat a “low sodium diet” AND you sweat out sodium on a near-daily basis, you’re going to have a problem.

If you are doing anything on a regular basis that causes you to sweat profusely for 90 minutes, you need to be aware that this is not a “normal” situation for your body. You need to replace what is sweated out – and plain water won’t do it.

If you are not getting sufficient food sources of electrolytes to replace what is being sweated out in the yoga room, you need to look at concentrated supplements.

There are several really good electrolyte supplements out there, I am not going to suggest one over the other. But I want you to take a close look at the ingredients list when you do see one, and PAY ATTENTION TO THE BALANCE OF ELECTROLYTES.

Again, it’s about sodium. Sodium is the electrolyte in largest concentration in your body, and in the largest concentration in your sweat. Notice whether the electrolyte supplement takes into account the higher loss of (and need for) sodium compared to other minerals. Most of them do not.

Notice whether the bottle of “electrolyte enhanced water” includes sodium AT ALL. Most of them don’t, because many people believe they are supposed to keep their sodium intake very low.

(Some people DO need to keep their sodium intake down, they are usually under a doctor’s care and that situation is outside the scope of this blog post.)

YOU NEED TO REPLENISH SODIUM, if you are sweating it out for 90 minutes in a hot yoga class.

You need to replenish ALL ELECTROLYTES, in balance.

If you are replenishing everything else BUT SODIUM, you will still have an electrolyte imbalance, and you will continue to feel sick in class!

Let me pause here for a slight rant.  This topic is one of my pet hot yoga peeves. People do not know what electrolytes are, or how they are affecting their bodies with depletion, or why they need to do something about it.

I had a student in class the other night, nauseated and dizzy all through the 90 minute Bikram Yoga class. I came over to her during Savasana and asked her what was going on – she told me, and I offered her some salt. After class, she said she had felt better after taking that pinch of salt. We talked a bit more about food and electrolytes, she said she was on “a No Sodium diet”. I asked if that was her doctor’s orders, and she said “No.”

Hot Yoga and a No Sodium Diet. Let that sink in.

Then I explained what I have explained here: “You need electrolytes. You need minerals. You are sweating out sodium, you need to replenish sodium. The electrical system that runs your nerves and muscles is not being properly fueled. Please add an electrolyte supplement to your water.”

She said she’d think about it.

A slight electrolyte imbalance causes uncomfortable symptoms like muscle cramping and nausea. If ignored, it can lead to cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, seizures, and death. This isn’t just some silly annoyance I’m talking about – it can lead to serious problems.

I’m not trying to frighten anybody – but you have to be responsible enough about your self-care to recognize that if you are doing something extreme enough to create 90 minutes solid of sweating out minerals, you need to replace what you lost. Replace it, and you won’t have a problem. Deplete yourself, and you might have a serious enough problem to warrant hospitalization. There is no need to put yourself in that position.

The Bottom Line:

If you experience the signs of electrolyte imbalance (depletion) I listed above (headache, dizziness, nausea, muscle cramps), you probably need a balanced mineral (electrolyte) supplement. An electrolyte powder in your water during class is a good way to replenish as you sweat.

If you are in class, and you still experience signs of electrolyte imbalance after adding in supplemental electrolytes to your water – take a small pinch of salt. If you immediately feel better, you know you have been sodium-deficient.


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