Electrolyte Drinks: What Are They and Do You Need Them?
Electrolytes play many important roles in the body.
But do you need to take electrolyte drinks in order to keep your electrolyte levels up and your body functioning? Here, we explore the science and different options for drinks.
Related: How Much Water Should You Drink?
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that have an electric charge and are found in blood, tissues, organs, and other bodily fluids. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium are all electrolytes. Electrolytes do a lot of important things in your body. They help keep the amount of water in your body balanced, as well as maintain pH levels and help move nutrients in and out of cells. Electrolytes also help muscles, nerves, and organs work properly.
Do you need electrolyte drinks?
If you eat a healthy diet and drink adequate water—so that your urine is clear to pale yellow—you don't need to drink electrolyte drinks on a regular basis because your electrolyte levels should be balanced. Most Americans consume more than the recommended amount of sodium—2,300 mg or one teaspoon of salt per day. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables helps you get enough potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
The amount of water you take in should be about the same as the amount you lose through sweat, urine, and other fluids. If you lose more fluid than you take in and get dehydrated, you lose electrolytes. Symptoms of dehydration include dark colored urine, extreme thirst, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, and infrequent urination. Though it's rare, you can also drink too much water and dilute the amount of sodium in your body, leading to hyponatremia.
There are times when you may become dehydrated and electrolyte drinks can help you rehydrate and replenish your electrolytes, including:
- Being in extreme heat
- Doing an intense workout
- Drinking too much alcohol
What is in electrolyte drinks?
Electrolyte beverages contain water, electrolytes (usually sodium and potassium), and sugar. The main purpose of an electrolyte drink is to help you rehydrate, so electrolyte beverages are mostly water. Varying amounts of sugar and electrolytes are added, depending on the purpose of the beverage. Some electrolyte drinks are targeted for post-exercise recovery, while others are better if you're sick and losing fluids through vomiting or diarrhea.
Sugary sports drinks like Gatorade probably come to mind when you think about electrolyte drinks. But do you need sugar in an electrolyte drink? Actually, yes. Sugar helps increase water absorption, thereby speeding up how quickly you're rehydrated.
Sugar is a carbohydrate and sports drinks with carbohydrates also help replenish glycogen stores—the storage form of glucose that runs out during prolonged endurance exercise (e.g. known as "hitting the wall"). But, research shows excessive amounts of sugar are not needed by your body. Too much sugar can make it hard to consume the drink and can slow absorption of water. (Learn more about what happens to your body when you eat too much sugar.)
Sodium and other minerals
Sodium, potassium, and chloride are the most commonly added electrolytes. All of these are lost through sweat. Sodium also makes you thirsty so having sodium in an electrolyte drink can help increase the amount you drink, thereby helping you take in more water to rehydrate.
Protein is not traditionally added to electrolyte drinks but is sometimes added to sports drinks to aid in rebuilding muscles. However, milk protein may help the body retain water post-exercise, according to a small 2011 study in the British Journal of Nutrition. (Find out how much protein you should eat every day.)
What are the best electrolyte drinks?
Although tap water has some added minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium, it doesn't have sugar and may not have enough sodium to replenish stores.
Mineral water comes from underground reservoirs and springs and is bottled at the source. It naturally contains more electrolytes than tap water but no sugar. It's not your best option for electrolytes. (Learn more about mineral water and if it's healthier than regular water here.)
Coconut water is high in potassium and also delivers sodium, 4% of the daily value (DV) for calcium, and 4% of the DV for magnesium, while being low in sugar - just 11 grams in an 8-oz serving. Studies have shown that coconut water rehydrates better than plain water and the same as traditional sport drinks, only with less sugar. (Learn more about the health benefits of coconut water here.)
Maple water is a newer water on the market that claims to have naturally occurring electrolytes and be naturally hydrating. While it does have half the amount of sugar as coconut water, it doesn't have any sodium, has 1% of the DV for potassium, and 4% of the DV for calcium. Maple water may be more hydrating than plain water before, during, and after exercise and might boost exercise performance, but more studies are needed. (Learn more about maple water and what the benefits are here.)
Make Your Own
Create your own balanced electrolyte drink to customize the beverage to your taste. You can use natural ingredients like tap or mineral water, lemon or lime juice, ginger, salt, and agave syrup.
Nooma was created by two athletes who were fed up with all the sugar and artificial ingredients in traditional sports drinks. Nooma is 28% coconut water (provides potassium, calcium, and magnesium), filtered water, himalayan pink salt (provides sodium), organic flavors and organic stevia. You can find it on Amazon for $29.99 for a pack of 12.
Nuun makes electrolyte tablets that can be added to water and provide numerous minerals including sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium. They have tablets targeted for sports, immunity, endurance, and more. The sport tablets, for example, also contain caffeine. Nuun tablets are sweetened with stevia leaf extract. Available on Amazon for $20 for a pack of 4.
Pedialyte has a variety of products that are effective for kids and adults alike. Pedialyte is targeted more for dehydration and sickness such as food poisoning, stomach flu, and morning sickness, but it's also an option for rehydrating post-exercise. Compared to popular sports drinks, the "classic" Pedialyte has more sodium (16% DV), potassium (6% DV) and chloride (20% DV), with about a fourth of the amount of sugar. It also has zinc. It does have artificial sweeteners though, which is what keeps the overall sugar content down. Find Pedialyte at Target for around $5 or at your local drugstore.
This original sports drink was created at the University of Florida to help athletes combat dehydration in the hot Florida weather. While it has sodium and potassium, which are great for replenishing electrolytes after a strenuous workout, one 20-oz serving has 36 grams of sugar and artificial food dyes. Gatorade also makes products with less sugar, like G2, and products with no sugar, like G Zero. Find Gatorade on Amazon for $20 for a pack of 12, or at your local grocery store.
On a daily basis, water and a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables is sufficient to keep your electrolyte levels balanced. However, if you become dehydrated from a strenuous workout, extreme heat, vomiting, or diarrhea, an electrolyte drink will help you rehydrate and replenish electrolytes. Find a water with sodium and potassium, as well as magnesium, calcium, and chloride if you can. It's ideal if it has a small amount of sugar to help absorption, but not too much to slow digestion.