“Electrolytes are minerals, including potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium, that become ionized when we ingest them in a polar solvent, such as water,” said Dr. Rand McClain. Dr. McClain is sports medicine doctor who works with professional athletes. He also founded LCR Health.
In order to stay hydrated, our body’s cells need sodium chloride.
“With sodium chloride, or table salt, it will separate and become an ion, so there’s sodium ions floating around in the water in your body,” McClain said. “When you ingest them, they go into the cell, which is where the osmosis comes in. They’re called electrolytes because of the whole electron situation going on.”
Throughout the day, we get electrolytes in various ways. Those whose diets are full of milk and yogurt are good sources of electrolyte calcium. On the other hand, if you reach for bananas often, you’re getting more of the electrolyte potassium. Watermelon, avocado and coconut can help. In addition, many other fruits and vegetables offer electrolyte boosts when eaten on a regular basis.
On days indoors with little to no physical activity, our kidneys excrete unused salt or electrolytes at a natural pace, he added. But on extremely hot days or during exercise or athletic competition, our bodies crave electrolytes because we sweating them out at a faster rate, McClain said.
McClain suggests that runners and athletes up their electrolyte intake the day before a race or competition. They can do this by drinking a diluted sports drink or by adding more table salt to the dinner the night prior.
“You don’t need fancy electrolyte drinks; I used to make my own,” McClain said. “I would get a liter of water with a quarter to half teaspoon of table salt, add lemon and honey, and voilà — you have a sports drink.”
The first marketing electrolyte-filed drink in the United States was Gatorade. In 1965, scientists at the University of Florida created the drink. The goal was to make “synthetic sweat” for the Gators football team.
Gatorade is still innovating 55 years later, this time with a sweat patch. During a workout, this patch is made to complete a full body scan as the wearer works out. Then, the patch is supposed to transfer those statistics to a cellphone app, which will then notify the person when they need to hydrate.
Sports drinks work to replenish electrolytes because they give you energy through added minerals potassium and magnesium, which are lost during intense workouts, he said. But our cells’ electrolyte balance is important on days when we sweat more than normal.
Read more about why we sweat in our other article: Why Do I Sweat So Much When I Workout?
Sodium in our bodies controls our water balance, and electrolytes such as calcium, potassium and magnesium activate proteins that make our cells work properly, said Dr. Michelle Udayamurthy. Udayamurthy is the managing physician at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic’s Berthelsen main campus.
When our cells have an electrolyte imbalance, we can feel nauseated, lethargic and have fluid retention in our hands and feet, Udayamurthy said. Our sweat is mainly sodium chloride and water. Because we lose electrolytes when we sweat, we feel tired and wiped out.
“You 100 percent need electrolytes in your body, but it has to be a balanced amount,” Udayamurthy said. “It’s person-to-person dependent, depends on what activity you’re doing and whether you’re out in the hot sun.”
Though sports drinks contain electrolytes, many also contain too much sugar to be considered a healthful option, she said. Not only that, but the sugar can worsen dehydration symptoms.
The American Health Association recommends adults limit their sugar intake to 24 grams a day. In comparison, a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade Thirst Quencher contains 34 grams. Additionally, Powerade has 21 grams, Vitamin water has 13 grams, and Pedialyte Sport has 14 grams per liter. Lastly, Electrolyte consists of 12 grams of sugar.
When it comes to drinking sports drinks marketed with electrolytes, Udayamurthy recommends diluting them with water. One way to overcome this sugar overload is by halving the sports drink mixed with half water. This will keep the benefits of the electrolytes while weakening the harmful effects of the sugar.
“Diluting it is better for hydration because you’re diluting the sugar but still getting the good electrolytes in that you’ll need for all that sweating you’ve been doing,” she said.
Katherine Wright, co-founder of Bounce Hydration, says sports drinks are not a long-term solution for people who dehydrate easily or are looking for an electrolyte boost. When people need additional hydration, her Houston-based mobile IV clinic services people at their homes or offices.
“The average person does not drink enough water in a day, so they feel dehydrated,” Wright said. “Sometimes you feel the effects of that dehydration with a minor headache and feeling low all around.”
Though standard IV drips consist of saline and electrolytes, additional vitamins can be added based on the customer’s wants. The most sought-after drips are geared toward boosting the immune system, slowing the effects of aging and getting over hangovers, Wright said.
Udayamurthy does not recommend IV drips unless they’re prescribed by a doctor.
“If you have any underlying medical conditions that you may not know about, and you pump yourself full of potassium or sodium, it could be damaging to your health,” Udayamurthy said. “With IV hydration, it’s better to stick with a medical professional at a clinic or hospital setting than doing IV services.”
Both McClain and Udayamurthy agree that plain water and some salt packets can work wonders for basic hydration and electrolyte replenishment. The key is to not go overboard and be wary of sugar content and substitutes.
“When you’re sweating and working up a good pace, a little sugar can be good for you, but you don’t want a huge amount,” Udayamurthy said. “Diluting them is the easiest way to go.”