September 23, 2012

What Everyone Needs To Know About Sodium, Potassium, And How They Impact Performance And Appearance

Sodium plays a pivotal role in performance in and out of the gym, as well as achieving a certain level of conditioning/vascularity. Sodium is an extracellular cation (the primary positively charged ion outside of the cell), responsible for regulating blood volume and blood pressure.

Higher levels of sodium are directly associated with higher blood volume. Lower levels of sodium are therefore directly associated with lower blood volume.

Here’s how blood volume can affect performance: When you are lifting weights, blood pressure rises in direct proportion to the magnitude of work being performed. Higher blood volume, as a result of adequate sodium intake, translates into better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles, as well as better removal of fatigue toxins/metabolic waste.

If you have lower blood volume, due to less than adequate sodium intake, then performance will be negatively affected as a result of less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to the working muscles, as well as allowing accumulation of fatigue toxins/metabolic waste. The end result is sub-optimal recovery and increased weakness.

No conversation about sodium and its performance enhancing effects would be complete without mentioning potassium. Potassium is an intracellular cation (the primary positively charged ion inside of the cell) responsible for regulation and control of skeletal and cardiac muscle.

Potassium is dependent on sodium to get into the cell (via the sodium-potassium pump) and maintain cell integrity. Potassium cannot get into the cell to do its job without sodium. Therefore low sodium intake results in lower amounts of potassium getting into the cell.

There is a delicate balance of certain vitamins and minerals within the body required for it to function optimally. If this balance is disrupted, then the body will instinctively compensate by making the necessary adjustments to continue functioning. As it relates to the scope of this article, the body will compensate for low blood sodium (which can happen from either restricting sodium through diet, or sweating out more sodium than you’re taking in, or both), by having the cells release the positively charged potassium out of the cell, where the positively charged sodium would normally be, to establish the delicate balance needed between the two, in and out of the cell, ultimately resulting in weakness, cramping, and tiredness.

The primary hormone responsible for regulating this delicate balance between sodium and potassium is a mineralcorticoid produced by the adrenal glands called aldosterone. Aldosterone’s main purpose in the body is to conserve/retain (hold onto) sodium, and secrete (get rid of) potassium based on current needs of the body.

If you are providing your body with adequate amounts of sodium and water, there is no need for aldosterone to be upregulated and released into the blood, since its main purpose is to regulate blood pressure and blood volume (sodium does that for you). It’s when sodium levels become low, relative to water and potassium, that the body senses the need to hold onto whatever sodium it has, and it upregulates aldosterone to do this. This is detrimental to a physique competitor because sodium is the primary extracellular cation as mentioned earlier, which means outside the cell, and is exactly where you do NOT want to be holding water.

A side effect of aldosterone being upregulated is that potassium is shuttled out of the body from the cells to maintain the balance between extracellular and intracellular cations. Since potassium is responsible for regulation and control of skeletal and cardiac muscle, a reduction of potassium levels inside the cell will result in weakness and cramping, as well as less water being held INSIDE the cell, which is exactly where you want water to be.

Understanding how sodium, potassium, and aldosterone work together is critical if performing at your absolute best is important to you. For those who train for aesthetics and want to attain a certain level of vascularity, much like a pre-contest bodybuilder or physique competitor would, than understanding this information is even more crucial.

Sodium, potassium, and aldosterone play a huge role in one’s conditioning come show time. If these minerals/electrolytes are not in perfect balance within the body, the end result for a pre-contest bodybuilder or physique competitor could be catastrophic by the promotion of water retention.

Typically a physique athlete will manipulate, or at least attempt to manipulate, sodium and water intake in an attempt to display a polished finished product when they get on the big stage. To do this they will crank up sodium and water intake, which will downregulate aldosterone as well as anti-diuretic hormone, and put the body into flushing mode.

Anti-diuretic hormone is a water retention hormone that also plays a critical role in a physique athlete showing up in the absolute best condition possible. When water levels/hydration are low relative to sodium and potassium, or if blood volume may is low, anti-diuretic hormone is upregulated, prompting the body to hold onto water.

When extra blood volume is detected within the chambers of the heart, due to increased sodium and water intake, atrial natriuretic hormone is released, which is a water and sodium flushing hormone.

Not only does atrial natriuretic hormone promote the flushing of sodium and water from the body, it also has a downregulating effect on aldosterone and anti-diuretic hormone.

Therefore the greater sodium and water intake, the greater atrial natriuretic hormone upregulation (sodium and water flushing hormone), as well as greater downregulation of aldosterone and anti-diuretic hormone (sodium and water retaining hormones).

Here is a brief rundown of how to manipulate aldosterone, anti-diuretic hormone, and atrial natriuretic hormone through diet/lifestyle:

High Sodium Intake = Downregulation of Aldosterone

High Water Intake = Downregulation of Anti-Diuretic Hormone

High Blood Volume = Upregulation of Atrial Natriuretic Hormone (which also downregulates Aldosterone and Anti-Diuretic Hormone)

Low Sodium Intake = Upregulation of Aldosterone

Low Water Intake = Upregulation of Anti-Diuretic Hormone

Low Blood Volume = Downregulation of Atrial Natriuretic Hormone (which also upregulates Aldosterone and Anti-Diuretic Hormone

Increased STRESS = Upregulation of Aldosterone

By providing your body with adequate amounts of sodium (2 grams per liter per day should suffice) and water every day, you provide the body with what is needed to perform at its best, and look as lean as possible.

Where those striving to look their absolute best for a given event go wrong, is that they either consciously or unconsciously adjust their sodium, potassium, or water intake, which negatively affects the regulation of hormones like aldosterone, anti-diuretic hormone, and atrial natriuretic hormone.

The last few days/hours before a physique athlete competes can be very stressful for anyone, and this in itself can cause the body to upregulate aldosterone production which causes the body to hold onto sodium and remove potassium. As you can imagine, this means more water is stored outside of the cells, and less water is stored inside the cells, leaving your muscles looking flat, and definition blurred.

Because potassium is the primary intracellular cation, potassium sparing diuretics that downregulate aldosterone to assist in eliminating sodium are often used. The theory is that if the body can eliminate sodium, excess extracellular water will go with it, which in theory makes sense. But (there’s always a ‘but’) as sodium levels drop, so do water levels and blood volume. If you recall, it’s when blood volume is low, or water levels are low relative to sodium and/or potassium, that the body upregulates anti-diuretic hormone, which causes the body to hold onto water.

If the timing of a potassium sparing diuretic isn’t extremely precise, the result of using such tactics could lead to essentially wasting all the months of training and dieting come show time, therefore making it very high risk for a possibly, slightly better reward.

Here’s how to take this information and apply it in a practical way. If the goal is to be able to train at the highest level possible, then it is of the utmost importance to provide your body with optimal amounts of sodium and water. The size of the individual obviously determines the quantity of water and sodium needed per day, but a good rule to go by is to take in 2 grams of sodium per litre of water.

If the goal is to look your absolute best on a given day, for a given event, then you can attempt to manipulate your sodium and water intake (along with carbohydrates) to do so. Here’s a blueprint of how to do that:

First off, muscle glycogen ranges from 1.5-2% under normal conditions. That’s equivalent to 1.5-2 grams per every 100 grams of muscle. If you deprive yourself of carbohydrates, and deplete your stored carbohydrates through training, muscle glycogen can drop as low as 0.6%, or 0.6 grams per 100 grams of muscle.

Depleting muscle glycogen content results in a super compensative effect in which the body will actually allow itself to store more glycogen (between 3.5-4% or 3.5-4 grams per 100 grams of muscle) than it would under normal conditions.

Also worth noting is that 1 gram of muscle glycogen pulls 2.7 grams of water with it into the muscle cell.

Here’s how to calculate how much weight can be gained by simply depleting and reloading carbohydrates:

Before you get into any sort of calculation, you need to know all of the numbers associated with each of the variables involved in the equation.

First you need to know exactly how much muscle you have on your body. For simplicity we’ll use round numbers, and in this case we’ll say there is 100 lbs. of muscle to work with.

So here’s how you calculate all of these numbers:

1 kg = 2.2 lbs

100 lbs. of muscle divided by 2.2 = 45.45 kg

Since we use grams to quantify the amount of food we eat, and not kilograms, we need to break down 45.45 kg of muscle, into hectograms.

45.45 multiplied by 10 = 454.5 hectograms

454.5 hg multiplied by 4 (the maximum amount of grams of glycogen that can be stored into depleted muscles) = 1,818 grams of glycogen that can be stored.

1,818 grams of glycogen that can be stored multiplied by 2.7 (the amount of water pulled into the muscles per gram of glycogen) = 4,908.6 grams of weight that can be added from carb loading.

4,908.6 grams divided by 1,000 = 4.9086 kg

4.9086 multiplied by 2.2 = 10.8 lbs

This means that you are capable of adding up to 10.8 lbs. during a carb load and deplete. To do this you’d have to take in 1,818 grams of carbs, spread over however many days you decided to carb up for (which would be based on however many days you decided to deplete for).

Because the body’s glycogen storing enzymes will be upregulated, high glycemic carbs are ideal as soon as you begin to load back up. Shortly after you begin carb loading, the glycogen storing enzymes will start to downregulate, therefore making lower glycemic carbs ideal after the first day or so of beginning the carb load.

If you are taking the appropriate amounts of sodium needed for optimal performance prior to the carb deplete/load, then your body should have downregulated aldosterone naturally, while upregulating atrial natriuretic hormone. It takes roughly 2-2 ½ days for your body to recognize that the pattern of high amounts of sodium has deceased, so you should try and minimize sodium intake as much as possible roughly 2 days before the competition. This should keep your body flushing out sodium, along with extracellular water.

Water intake should be reduced in proportion with sodium, roughly two days before the event, to allow the body to keep flushing it out along with sodium, before being completely eliminated roughly 10-12 hours before getting on stage, leaving enough time for the last bit of carbs to soak up whatever water may be left over.

If you have any questions about sodium, potassium, and their effect on hormones, performance, and appearance, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Article I loved reading it. Provided me with tons of valuable information!!!!
    A Bodybuilders Dream.