Is Sodium Necessary to Re-hydrate?

Contributed by Sheryl Normandeau (Calgary, AB)

CAUGHT BETWEEN REPEATED HEALTH WARNINGS that too much sodium isn’t good for us, and the proliferation of high-sodium processed foods at grocery stores and restaurants, is it any wonder there is confusion as to how much sodium a young athlete should consume both pre- and post-sport?

Facts:

  • The body actually needs a small amount of sodium to conduct normal functions.
  • Sodium helps to facilitate the movement of fluid between cells, and aids in the absorption and transportation of nutrients.
  • Sodium is vital to blood circulation and the movement of muscle and nerves.
  • Too much sodium can be dangerous, however, and can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke, as well as promote heart and kidney disease.
  • Canada’s Food Guide suggests that children ages four to eight consume about 1200 mg of sodium per day, while older children should have a daily intake of 1500 mg.

Health Canada estimates that the average person over the age of one year actually consumes 3400 mg of sodium on a daily basis!*

Given such a high rate of sustained sodium intake, is it ever necessary for a young hockey player to consume supplemental sodium during sport?

The answer is usually no.

The truth is that our high-sodium diets will provide all (and more) of the sodium necessary for good performance on the ice. There is no need to load up on sodium in the week prior to a big game or a tournament, as some marathon runners and other athletes do — hockey isn’t the type of sport where activity is prolonged and sustained for hours on end.

There are times, however, when excessive loss of fluids may occur through sweating, especially if high heat and humidity are present. (Some athletes also tend to sweat more salt than others).  In extreme cases — and usually only in ultra-endurance athletes — this may lead to a serious condition called hyponatremia, whereupon sodium in the blood drops to abnormally low levels.  (Hyponatremia can also occur due to overhydration and an imbalance of electrolytes, mineral salts which include sodium).

It is suggested that consumption of sodium-laden sports drinks, or even salt tablets, may assist in the prevention of hyponatremia.

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  • While sports drinks containing sodium are not necessary for most hockey players in average game settings, sports drinks can readily combat dehydration, and in moderation, may be used as “thirst-promoters” during post-game recovery.
  • Plain water can actually dilute the amount of sodium in the body and decrease the urge to drink before the body is sufficiently re-hydrated, which is the worst-case scenario for a dehydrated athlete.
  • The electrolytes that sports drinks contain increase the sensation of thirst and the anti-diuretic effect of sodium helps the body to retain fluid, thus rehydrating quickly and efficiently.

A handful of potato chips and water works in much the same way and can be a good alternative.

Finally, there has been much speculation about the role of sodium in preventing muscle cramping, a familiar hockey ailment.

Traditionally, excess sodium consumption has been blamed for inducing cramps, and it is true that an imbalance of electrolytes in the body may have a negative effect on muscle function. Dehydration or a lack of potassium are also significant contributors to muscle cramping, however, and in such a case, a gulp of a sports drink containing sodium will actually help in the rehydration process. Timing and balance is everything.

Above all, maintaining a sodium intake within Health Canada’s guidelines and pursuing a balanced diet which includes fresh fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy (if tolerated) is always the key to good on- and off-ice performance!

Resources:
*1. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/food-aliment/sodium-eng.php
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