I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, since I’ve gotten quite a few questions on products like LiquidIV, Nuun, and Hydrant, and even Pedialyte. There are so many products out there geared towards improving our hydration, and quite a few of them have claims to provide “2-3 times the hydration of water!” Today, I’m discussing if the claims on these products have any merits, how to tell when you need electrolytes, and when you probably just need to drink some freaking water. Spoiler alert: in most circumstances, you probably just need water.
What are electrolytes and how do electrolyte drinks work?
Electrolytes are any minerals that, when dissolved in blood, carry an electric charge. Our bodies require these electrical charges to do basically everything.
Our cells are encased in a cell membrane that allows water to come in and out of our cells. You may have heard of osmosis— this is the key reason electrolytes are important. Osmosis is when water moves across a membrane from an area with a higher concentration of electrolyte molecules to an area that has a lower concentration.
The issue is that when we sweat, we lose water from outside the cellular membrane. With water lost, this fluid becomes super concentrated with electrolytes, and to balance this out, water moves from inside the cell to outside the cell.
Drinking more water will dilute the high concentration of minerals outside the cell so water flows back into the cell to balance things out again.
The primary concern for electrolyte loss is sodium, but vitamin C, calcium, and potassium can also be lost. The amount of electrolytes lost in sweat varies from person to person, but we do all lose electrolytes to some extent when we sweat. Since these can’t be replaced with plain old water, this is why electrolyte drinks are sometimes beneficial.
How to Tell When You Need Electrolytes- Potential Scenarios
You’ve been chugging coffee
Look, I get it. I drink a lot of coffee and tea. I’ve already told y’all about the times I tried collagen coffee and adaptogen coffee, and if it’s below 50 degrees outside, you can bet that I’ve probably swapped my water bottle for a mug of tea.
Anecdotally, I feel like I pee A LOT when I’m drinking coffee, but this is likely due in part to the fact that I’m probably drinking more liquid than I would be if I were just having some water in the morning.
The science says that unless you’re drinking a whole lot of caffeine (upwards of 4 cups of coffee a day), caffeine does not dehydrate you. This is, of course, if you’re a regular coffee drinker. If you don’t drink it much, it can have a mild diuretic effect (i.e. more pee). Caffeine doesn’t do anything to create an electrolyte imbalance.
Verdict: Water is probably sufficient.
You’ve been working out (but looking at your phone most of the time, and haven’t really broken a sweat)
This one’s for you, guy who sends 30 Snapchats between each set and hogs the squat rack! Remember that thing about losing minerals through sweat? Well, if you’re not sweating, you’re probably not losing those minerals. They will probably be replaced with your next meal.
Verdict: If you really want the electrolyte drink, go for it. It’s probably not necessary.
You’ve been working out (and your shirt has changed colors because you’re so sweaty)
You probably lost some sweat. If you can get a snack in soon after finishing your workout, that’s probably your best bet. But if that’s not an option, this may be a warranted situation for electrolyte drinks.
Verdict: Likely good either way.
It’s the morning after the first night of your friend’s bachelorette weekend and you already feel like your blood is 90 percent vodka cranberry.
There’s a reason why college orientation leaders tell first-years to alternate glasses of water after each drink. It’s because alcohol can dehydrate you through two main mechanisms. Firstly, alcohol is a diuretic (i.e. makes you pee more). If you’re not drinking water to replenish this, you might be adding fuel to the fire.
Secondly, if you continue to drink after reaching a certain blood alcohol content, electrolytes are also excreted at higher rates to maintain balance.
Electrolyte drinks can definitely help the feeling of dehydration and the hangovers associated with it, but food is probably the best source to replenish minerals. If you can’t stomach food, an electrolyte drink or coconut water, (which has similar mineral content), is a good option.
Verdict: Electrolyte drinks may be warranted, but you might also just want a big glass of water and a hearty breakfast.
You’re running a marathon or something else that lasts multiple hours where eating isn’t really an option
In general, doing a workout under 60 minutes duration is probably not cause for electrolyte drinks. After a 30-minute jog, you can get home and get a snack quickly enough to keep from crashing.
But in longer athletic pursuits, replacing these salts can be a big benefit. A randomized controlled trial in 2016 showed statistically significant differences in race time for half-Ironman participants between those who had an electrolyte mix versus those who used plain water.
Snacking while on the go can be kind of difficult, so an electrolyte drink can get some of those minerals back into your body without making you vomit. 10/10.
Speaking from my own experience, I really love Nuun. It has basically no sugar in it, so it won’t make your hydration pack a total sticky mess. I used this water belt when I ran marathons so I’d put a bottle on one side with only water, and a bottle on the other side with one of these tablets dropped in.
You want something sugary that tastes nice.
You probably don’t need electrolyte drinks in most situations. The reason people like them is that the majority of electrolyte drinks (with the exception of Nuun, which has 1 gram), contain hella sugar.
Electrolyte drinks taste good and can be refreshing. If you want one, go for it! But don’t expect it to work as a cure-all.
Why Electrolyte Drinks Are Mainly Marketing
Dumping Gatorade on your head after the big win gives the vibe that sports drinks are synonymous with being a champion.
Sports drink marketing is geared to let you know that they are what you need to take your performance to the next level. Recently, they’ve been advertised as what you need to deal with the aftereffects of too many gin and tonics.
Despite this, they’re basically all the same. Most of them have some kind of sugar, some kind of flavoring, and a mix of vitamins, potassium, and sodium.
Liquid IV’s marketing states that their product can hydrate 2-3 times better than water because of their “breakthrough science” of Cellular Transport Technology®. This science is not novel, nor breakthrough (anytime something says is advertised as a scientific “breakthrough”, it should probably raise some red flags).
We’ve known about osmosis since the 1800s. Literally, nothing is new here other than the marketing and the brilliant idea to trademark a name for one of the fundamental processes of cells.
Do electrolyte drinks work? Heck yeah. Do we need them in 90% of situations? Heck no.
As a very reluctant water drinker (I know, I know, good for my skin, etc.), I totally understand why someone would rather just grab a powder to throw in their drink rather than drink more water. Electrolyte drinks, like 99% of the health and wellness fads I write about on here, are just not necessary for a lot of people.
We generally don’t need weird tests, contraptions, or supplements to improve our health. But sugary drinks do taste nice. If you want a Gatorade or something similar (l recommend cucumber lime), go grab one. But recognize that it’s probably not that much different from grabbing a soda.