Sodium by far would have to be one of the most misunderstood substances in the health and fitness industry. Many are aware that it is important for a variety of functions in the human body, while many fitness goers are also aware that its consumption can be manipulated to help individuals attain both aesthetic and performance based goals.
Unfortunately, the spectrum of opinions that exist as to what strategies to undertake when manipulating sodium levels is as wide as anything. We see a lot of Coaches and Trainers who recommend certain protocols and strategies for their competitors or athletes to look their best when they hit the stage or ensure they can perform at their peak on the field. In this article, we are going to give sodium a closer look, and explore why it is important, when it should be used and strategies that can be employed to manipulate sodium to achieve a variety of health and fitness goals.
1. Muscle Hypertrophy
When it comes to building muscle, many are familiar with the necessary training and nutrition requirements which are fundamental to necessitate growth. Additional attention is usually paid to the specific quantity of Proteins and Carbohydrates consumed, but rarely do you hear a gym goer talk of their Sodium intake to assist the attainment of their goals. In fact, bodybuilders frequently prescribe to the school of thought that Sodium will actually inhibit their progress, causing them to gain weight and hold water.
Athletes will ensure they get their post workout shake in, while sipping on Amino Acids all day to provide their muscles with adequate nutrients to elicit recovery and growth. Without these nutrients, your muscles won’t have the tools they need to actually recover and grow larger. But how do these nutrients actually access our damaged muscle cells? That’s where Sodium comes in; think of it as Uber in the body! Sodium transports Potassium into muscle cells, with both being responsible for regulating both intracellular and extracellular fluid. Few realise however, that these two minerals constantly strive to keep water levels both inside a cell and outside (subcutaneously, under the skin) equal. If you consume extra Potassium for example, the body will reabsorb additional Sodium to compensate. So what does this mean? Intracellular fluid, regulated by Potassium, plays a key role when it comes to building muscle, as increased fluid in muscle cells increases protein turnover and works to transport key Amino Acids into muscles! In addition, studies revealed that Sodium deficiency negatively impacted how Insulin Sensitive someone is, meaning how well they can transport and receive ingested nutrients into muscle cells, paramount to muscle growth. In fact, a recent study revealed that after subjects followed a Low-Sodium diet for seven days, they showed symptoms of Insulin Resistance in blood tests! Maintaining Insulin Sensitivity is paramount for bodybuilders, enhancing one’s ability to transport necessary nutrients for growth whilst mitigating unwanted fat gains. To learn more about Insulin, check out this article here!
Therefore, don’t be afraid to use salt on each of your meals, particularly before and after your training when your body needs it most and to replenish your existing stores.
2. Stage Conditioning
Peak Week describes the final week bodybuilders encounter before stepping onto the stage. There are a host of protocols that athletes employ, in order to deplete muscle glycogen, dry up and then to fill out again come show time. You may have heard of many athletes manipulating their Water and Sodium intake in a bid to shed excess water weight, and to achieve a dry, grainy look. Let’s explore exactly how Sodium works in our body, and the implication that drastic reductions in its consumption may have.
The Kidneys are responsible for regulating Blood Sodium levels, on average maintaining approximately 140mEq/L. When you consume more Sodium than you usually do, the Kidneys work to eliminate the excess through excretion. On the other end of the spectrum, when one consumes less Sodium than usual, the Kidneys will conserve existing stores, and reabsorb this Sodium back into the bloodstream, instead of excreting it. Studies reveal that even when limiting consumption of Sodium, blood levels remained unchanged! This begs us to question: does cutting sodium consumption actually work as desired?
A consequence of reducing one’s intake of Sodium is an increase in the Hormone Aldosterone. This hormone is responsible for reabsorbing and retaining both water and sodium in the blood stream. Studies revealed that after only two days of Sodium depleting, Aldosterone actually doubled! And by 6 days, it had more than tripled. So those partaking in Sodium depleting strategies during peak weak will actually notice an increase in water retention, as the Kidneys are busy re-absorbing these nutrients to replace lost stores.
Therefore, we recommend keeping your Sodium levels consistent during this time. Making a drastic change like this the week prior to your show will throw our your body water and glycogen levels; both of which are essential to appear at one’s best on stage. You can slightly elevate your Sodium levels at the beginning of the week, gradually decreasing as the days roll out, but Sodium should never be cut completely.
3. Muscle Fullness
Filling out is another concern for both competitive bodybuilders and everyday gym goers, who enjoy their muscles looking full, hard and ripped! Pump Products have become ever so popular amongst gym goers, who rely on these products to boost levels of Nitrate in the body and achieve blood flow and muscle pumps. Many are aware how carbing up can assist with achieving a fuller looking physique, as the glycogen from the foods consumed will replenish stores in muscle cells and bring in extra water, pumping up your muscles. But did you know, inadequate Sodium levels present in the body will affect your ability to Carbohydrate Load successfully? It is common to see competitors spending 1 – 3 days prior to stepping on stage slowly (or ungracefully) adding carbohydrates back into their diet in a bid to fill out their muscles. Without a sufficient intake of Sodium however, carbohydrate absorption can be significantly hindered. Failure to successfully absorb these carbohydrates will result in food sitting undigested in the gut, resulting in bloating and water retention. Therefore, competitors are unable to fill out as desired, which can result in appearing flat or ‘watery’ on stage, especially as competitors typically employ ‘water loading’ strategies as well, whereby gallons on gallons of water are consumed every day. The result of this? You flush out all the nutrients and Electrolytes in your body, leaving you dehydrated, flat and thirsty! In addition, Sodium deficiency will cause a drop in one’s blood pressure, which has the effect of eliminating Plasma water from the vascular system.
So what does this mean? We have established that water is responsible for filling veins and muscle cells which in turn gives them a fuller appearance and makes you appear more vascular. In this situation, Sodium is imperative as it binds to water and enables blood flow to muscles as well as keeping them full! With a decrease in blood pressure as a result of decreased Sodium intake, water will be re-absorbed into the subcutaneous layer under the skin, not your muscles! The combination of empty muscle cells with increased water retention under the skin will make individuals appear ‘fluffy’, soft and less defined. The exact opposite to what is desired when stepping on stage! Our advice is to increase your consumption of sodium (and water) during peak weak, especially when carbohydrate intake is low. For every 1 gram of carbohydrates consumed, the body will hold 3g of water; therefore, by cutting your carbohydrate consumption, this will result in less water and sodium retention. Sodium can be somewhat eliminated from your diet the day prior to competition, while water levels should be maintained. This will result in Diuresis, the process by which your body continues to flush water stores, which is amplified if you cut your water intake drastically the night before you step on stage. As a result, you will appear lean, dry and vascular come the morning of your show! At this time, your body will act like a sponge, absorbing any glucose, water, Sodium and fats into muscle cells, which are desperate for replenishment. Avoid large volumes of fluid at this point, but don’t fear sodium prior to stepping stage, which will give you a fuller, harder and tighter look! So don’t ruin 12 – 20 weeks of hard work during contest preparation, only to eliminate Sodium from your diet due to old-school protocols, which don’t have you looking your best on stage!
4. Strength and Performance
Adequate nutrition is imperative when it comes to performing at one’s peak, yet no Macronutrient or Micronutrient acts in isolation. Your body needs the correct combination and quantity of nutrition, with an emphasis being placed Sodium intake, as it ranks highly for athletes seeking to maximise their potential.
Sodium is essential for a range of purposes applicable to the performance athlete: muscle contraction, nerve function, blood volume and reducing muscle cramps. We have discovered that the absence of sufficient Sodium causes a drop in blood pressure and ability to maximise muscle fullness, but did you know this could also impact your performance? During exercise of a heightened intensity, blood pressure rises to facilitate muscular contractions and there is an increased need for nutrients, oxygen and energy to be transported around the body to working muscle groups. If you lack adequate Sodium and consequently experience a lower blood pressure, your ability to transport oxygen and nutrients to working muscles is reduced, while your bodies’ accumulation of fatigue toxins rise, which in turn causes you to become weaker. One’s Sodium balance can also be thrown off during performance based activities due to sweat! Our primary loss of sodium occurs through the sweat glands. As you can imagine, those cutting weight might sweat more than average due to increasing their exercise frequency, while also cutting salt from their diet due to various misconceptions that exist. How detrimental is that!
What about Electrolytes? There are 7 major Electrolytes including Potassium, Magnesium and Chloride, which most athletes will recognise as being important, but may not know why. Electrolytes are crucial for athletes, necessary for nerve function, muscle contraction and maintaining both internal and external cell fluid. Each carry out an important function in the body, and Sodium is required for each to be transported into muscle cells in the first place! Muscle cell walls are semipermeable to Sodium; it takes three Sodium molecules to transport one Potassium molecule into a muscle cell! As discussed, blood volume is highly dependent upon Sodium levels, which are necessary to attain muscle cell volumisation and muscle pumps. Not only is this essential for merely looking good, but ensuring athletes have access to key nutrients which will maximise their muscular force and strength during activity. With the intracellular and extracellular fluid brought in by intaking Sodium and Potassium, this results in an increase in joint leverage which allows for greater muscle overload, therefore positively impacting strength! In addition, this additional fluid works to decrease muscle strains by protecting soft and connective tissue from injury.
Various recommendations exist for athletes in terms of their recommended Sodium intake, ranging from 2g per day to up to 12g! It is highly dependent on the nature of training you do as well as the climate of your location. A good starting point for an athlete on a training day would be 3-4g, but you can monitor your intake and find the sweet spots that work for you. You can achieve this intake through adding salt to your meals during or using an Electrolyte containing supplement during your training, such as ATP Science Infrared.
5. General Health and Wellbeing
It is apparent that Sodium can assist athletes of various background improve in their field, but Sodium is also crucial for the maintenance of wellbeing and a myriad of important internal processes in the human body. Sodium is necessary for effective Nerve Function, whereby those who are sodium deficient will experience interruptions in their nerve communication. Nerve communication is paramount and responsible for coordinating all activities in the body, from actions to involuntary processes. Your nervous system is what tells you you’ve accidentally touched something that’s too hot, or allows your to lift a Barbell to perform a curl. Your neurons are the messenger deliverers of your body; and they require Sodium to operate and allow you to perform all your desired tasks.
From a digestive perspective, Sodium enhances the ability of intestines to absorb Amino Acids, Glucose and Water. Sodium is also imperative for proper Kidney function, which allow you to retain nutrients in your body and avoid excreting them in your urine. Sodium intake has also been shown to reduce the incidence of Hypertension, control blood sugar, enhance insulin sensitivity, maintain pH levels in the stomach, decrease Adrenaline spikes, improve the quality of sleep and support thyroid function!
There is no denying how delicious adding salt to foods makes things taste, so now that you know how vital Sodium is for a myriad of internal processes, ranging from essential to aesthetic and performance based. Therefore, you need not feel guilty next time you’re about to indulge in a salty cheat meal or for simply adding salt to your daily meals. Athletes and those who exercise will require a higher amount of Sodium than those who don’t, and research is limited in prescribing a definitive amount. Opt for quality salts like Himalayan Sea Salt over processed Table Salt, and discover the benefits of Sodium for yourself today!