Is Electrolyte Supplementation Essential?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Wondering why people are taking electrolytes? It’s a hot topic, so here's a quick rundown to find out whether or not you want to get on board!

Have you been wondering why people are taking electrolytes for everything from post-workout recovery to hangovers and daily replenishment? It’s a hot topic, and one worthy of a quick rundown to determine whether you should get on board.

I’ll get right to the point.

Unless we are crushing high intensity exercise for 90+ minutes or working out in extreme temperatures, electrolyte supplementation is not necessary. And while a handful of medical conditions or acute circumstances may be the exception to the rule, this is pretty solid ground to stand on.

I’ll tell you why…

Electrolytes 101
Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, are essential nutrients (meaning they need to be consumed) for us to live. They help to regulate fluid balance, blood pressure, muscle function, and much more.

Therefore, it’s important that we have a good balance of them. Under normal circumstances, our bodies fine-tune this process quite well.

When we exercise (or even when we are sick to our stomach), we lose a lot more electrolytes along with our sweat and other bodily fluids than normal. This is why in sports nutrition, peak performance is intrinsically linked to adequate nutrition and hydration.

1.Regularly scheduled nutrition and hydration is key
Choosing a wide variety of foods day to day, including lots of fruits and vegetables, provides us with the electrolytes we need. Even the most elite athletes recognize this is the baseline for high performance, regardless if extra replenishment is needed later on.

That’s why for most of us out there playing recreational sports, working out and taking classes at the gym, or going on runs or walks, re-hydrating with water or high-fluid foods (such as watermelon or soup, for example) is adequate replenishment. 

In healthy adults, our bodies do a great job signaling that we are thirsty. As for the oft-repeated eight cups of water a day? It’s baloney. There is no blanket amount of water everyone needs to drink to be well hydrated.

In fact, my friend and colleague, sports dietitian Laura Moretti Reece MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, said sometimes individuals are actually drinking too much water. This puts them in a hyponatremic (or low sodium) state. This is another version of electrolyte depletion. She says, drinking less water, instead of adding more sodium, can correct this.

2. Electrolyte supplements aren’t “better” than food
There is nothing magical about electrolyte supplementation; it’s simply an alternative to getting nutrients from food and beverages. Packaged in gels, tabs, powders, or concentrates, there are a variety of brands and electrolyte formulas to choose from depending on your preferences.

Marathon runners, for example, like the choice of gel packs, tabs, or liquids, because they are easier to tolerate, and more practical, than running on a full stomach (or running while eating a salad!).

Or maybe you’ve heard that chocolate milk is the best thing to have after activity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s yummy, but it’s equally un-magical. It’s simply an example of a broadly available and appealing drink that also has a balanced ratio of carbohydrate to protein, electrolytes, and fluids all mixed together.

Caffeine, an ingredient in many electrolyte or “sports” supplements, is often considered an added bonus, as it’s shown to have positive impact on athletic performance. The same goes for a standard shot of espresso; it’s just in a different vehicle.

While formulations of electrolyte repletion products vary in terms of taste (I’ve seen strawberry lemonade flavor!), electrolyte concentration, and carbohydrate content, athletes are often most focused on sodium, which is the electrolyte readily lost in sweat and also helps to increase thirst and encourage adequate hydration.

3. What about for a hangover?
Instead of looking for a hangover cure, my best advice is to not drink as much! But if you find yourself in a pickle, here’s why:

  • Alcohol minimizes the hormone that helps kidneys to reabsorb fluid. Meaning a hangover is essentially dehydration. It’s often accompanied by hypoglycemia because gluconeogenesis (making glucose) is acutely impaired while dealing with the alcohol breakdown.

This means that food and drink of most any kind should help, but some people prefer fluids when they are feeling unwell. Electrolyte drinks aren’t a magic cure (my nutrition professor used to tell her son to drink a soda), but they can be an easy way for people to rehydrate and get some quick glucose.

4. I cramp after exercise, so I need electrolyte supplements, right?
Cramping can be caused by several things, including but not limited to electrolyte imbalance. Energy levels, blood glucose levels, how much you have trained, and injuries can also be a factor. It’s hard to anticipate why cramps happen and when.

If cramps improve after taking electrolytes, it may be worth continuing. But remember that supplementation (and many scientific studies touting it) is rooted in placebo-driven capabilities. Meaning that the anticipation of feeling better often leads to feeling better. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If it works, it works!

Laura Moretti Reece MS, RD, CSSD, LDN says the most important thing is to understand your own individual “sweat rate” (which can be determined by a sports dietitian, but for the purposes of recreational sport just ask yourself if you are a heavy sweater), as well as if you’re exercising in extreme temperatures, and the intensity of your workouts. Everyone will be different.

5. Which electrolyte supplement should I choose if I need one?
Assess which types of products could potentially meet your needs and then try a few to determine which one you enjoy most. For example, some products are higher in sodium, which may be appropriate for those who sweat a lot, but may not be appropriate for those with high blood pressure or kidney disease. Also, consider the following:

  • There’s no need to fear sugar simply because it’s “added sugar.” With intensive exercise, carbohydrates in the form of sugar are a source of quick energy and can also help with hydration. Unless the added sugar gives you stomach discomfort (which it does for some) ask yourself why is it problematic?
  • Don’t scoff at Gatorade, Powerade, Pedialyte, coconut water, or other old school sports or replenishment drinks. . They may fit your needs better than some more of the newer (and oftentimes more expensive!) products.

The Strategist did a best in class for electrolyte powders and mixes. This resource includes most of the commercially popular brands and may be a helpful way to sort through the pros and cons of each one depending on your unique needs.

Laura Moretti Reece MS, RD, CSSD, LDN will recommend Nuun tablets for her athletes because they are under 500mg sodium, portable, and easy to add to water. She feels like this minimizes the risk of “oversalting” yourself. She also suggests Skratch is a nice option for people who like something less sweet.

What if I just like the taste?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with electrolyte supplementation. Just remember that more doesn’t equal better. Unnecessarily loading up on electrolytes may contribute to an imbalance in the other direction. This could lead to irregular heart beat, nerve twitching, elevated blood pressure, nausea, or headache to name a few.

For tasty and hydrating drinks besides water, I like these amazing Fountain Avenue Kitchen recipes:

Key Takeaways

  • Aside from a handful of medical conditions and/or workouts longer than 90 minutes or in extreme weather conditions, electrolyte replenishment is typically unnecessary.
  • We all have unique nutrition and hydration needs, so when choosing an electrolyte supplement, make sure it fits your personal needs.

‍♀️Please leave any comments or questions about electrolyte supplementation below. We love to hear from our readers!

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Comments

  1. Miller Gail
    (5/5)

    Retired LDN, CNSD here. Excellent overview of a topic that is confusing to many ( and rightly so as it can be complicated for some people). I used to preach hydration, hydration, hydration. That seemed to be the big issue for many young athletes. Thanks for advocating science based information!!!

    Reply