Do I Really Need Hydration Supplements?

Male athlete drinking hydration supplement beverage

Drazen Lovric / Getty Images

You probably know it’s a good idea to drink plenty of water after a long run, during an afternoon in the sun, or while dealing with the stomach flu. But could there be times when drinking water isn’t enough to rehydrate you? In recent years, hydration supplements have hit the market with the promise to do what water alone can’t—restore your fluid balance and replace lost electrolytes.

Still, you may have wondered if these supplements are really necessary, or when it is best to use them. If you have questions about these colorful pills and powders, we have the answers. Read on to find out whether extra electrolytes is smart for your health.

What are Hydration Supplements? 

Electrolytes like sodium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium are vital minerals that get lost when we sweat, urinate, vomit, or have diarrhea. They serve important functions in the body, such as helping muscles and nerves function properly, stabilizing pH, and regulating fluid balance.

For decades, sports beverages have been a favorite drink for athletes or anyone looking to recalibrate their electrolyte balance. While sports beverages are definitely considered dietary supplements for hydration, a newer-to-market category of electrolyte products has carved out its own niche, going by the term "hydration supplements."

"A hydration supplement comes in either a tablet or powder form and needs to be mixed with water before drinking, while a sports beverage is ready-to-drink,” explains Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a dietitian, author, and nutrition advisor to hydration supplement brand Cure.

People may use these products for a variety of reasons—often for the same reasons they’d reach for a bottle of Gatorade or Powerade. The benefits of using hydration supplements include electrolyte replacement and faster rehydration after sweating or being in a dry environment says Largeman-Roth.

“Lots of people can benefit from talking a hydration supplement, from everyday athletes, to travelers, to elderly people who have a hard time consuming enough plain water," she says.

You may prefer a hydration supplement over a sports beverage for its convenience, especially because a powder or tablet tends to be smaller and more portable than a bottled beverage. Some supplements also contain fewer calories and sugars than traditional athletic rehydration beverages, making them a good choice for anyone concerned about calories, carbs, and sugars.

What Does the Research Say? 

A fair amount of research has been conducted on sports beverages, but because hydration supplements in pill, powder, and tablet form are relatively new, there has been less scientific inquiry into their use for various health goals. Still, some conclusions can be drawn about their effectiveness. Here is what you need to know.

Hydration Supplements for Sports Performance and Recovery

It’s clear that, for athletes, a healthy diet—including adequate hydration—is key for optimum performance. Keeping your body hydrated not only can boost performance, it also helps prevent injury and promotes recovery.

According to research from 2018, functional beverages—especially those that contain glucose, fructose, and sodium—could improve athletic performance by sustaining metabolism and optimizing water absorption.

In another small study from 2020 (which, for the record, was funded by hydration supplement brand Nuun), active, healthy adults who added Nuun tablets to their water improved their fluid balance and retained more water than those who drank un-supplemented water.

Similarly, a small study from 2021 found that drinking a sports beverage before and after an exhaustive treadmill session boosted people’s ability to hang onto water, improved their exercise ability, and reduced fatigue.

Meanwhile, a much larger 2020 study concluded that hydration supplements didn’t necessarily prevent illness caused by electrolyte imbalance in athletes. Heat and overall hydration status were found to be far more critical factors in predicting sodium imbalance than the manner or type of electrolyte supplements athletes took.

Hydration Supplements for Gastrointestinal Illness

Whether to use a hydration supplement when you or your child are suffering from a stomach illness is a matter of some debate. According to FP Essentials, a journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, sports beverages and other electrolyte replacement supplements could be considered for people with anything up to mild dehydration.

But, they are not recommended for those with severe dehydration. It is best to talk to a healthcare provider before using a hydration supplement to treat stomach flu, food poisoning, or any other GI disruption.

How to Incorporate Hydration Supplements Naturally Into Your Diet

If you think you might like to try hydration supplements, it is probably OK to give it a shot. Barring any health conditions that necessitate closely monitoring your micronutrient levels, you should be able to safely use them.

“You can safely use hydration supplements every day,” says Largeman-Roth. “Most people tend to wake up a little dehydrated, so starting your day with a hydration supplement in your water is a smart idea.”

As you look for your ideal hydration supplement, you will also want to consider taste. Largeman-Roth suggests experimenting until you find one that you like the taste of.

“If you hate the way it tastes, you’ll never drink it, and therefore you won’t get the benefits," she says.

Convenience is, of course, another factor. If you would like to take your supplement on the go, look for one you can pack easily into a gym bag or purse. This shouldn’t be too difficult, since many hydration supplements come in stick packets or individual capsules. Also, read the ingredient labels and check nutrition facts to make sure you like what you see before buying.

“Look for one that is naturally sweetened and flavored, without artificial colors and flavors,” Largeman-Roth advises. “You can use a hydration supplement before, during, and after exercise, or whenever you feel dehydrated.”

A Word from Verywell

It’s difficult to tell how many electrolytes you may have lost during a strenuous workout or bout of the flu—so it’s not always clear cut when you might benefit from taking a hydration supplement. Bear in mind, too, that certain health conditions (such as heart or kidney disease), can be seriously affected by the levels of minerals in your bloodstream.

If you’re unsure about whether hydration supplements are right for you, talk to a healthcare provider. They can advise you if you might benefit from hydration supplements as well as how often you might want to use them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the signs of dehydration?

    Mild dehydration may simply feel like the sensation of thirst or a dry mouth. As dehydration progresses, however, it can result in symptoms like dark urine (or an inability to urinate), feeling dizzy or light-headed, rapid heart rate, fatigue, confusion, and headache.

  • How can I hydrate myself quickly?

    If you think you may be dehydrated, don’t ignore the signs. Getting fluids into your system quickly may prevent you from suffering the unpleasant side effects of excessive dehydration. Besides water, you can replenish your stores with healthy beverages like milk, coconut water, or water with a hydration supplement added—all of which have the benefits of replenishing electrolytes.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Judge LW, Bellar DM, Popp JK, et al. Hydration to maximize performance and recovery: knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors among collegiate track and field throwersJournal of Human Kinetics. 2021;79(1):111-122. doi:10.2478/hukin-2021-0065

  2. Orrù S, Imperlini E, Nigro E, et al. Role of functional beverages on sport performance and recoveryNutrients. 2018;10(10):1470. doi:10.3390/nu10101470

  3. Pence J, Bloomer RJ. Impact of nuun electrolyte tablets on fluid balance in active men and women. Nutrients. 2020;12(10):3030. doi:10.3390/nu12103030

  4. Choi DH, Cho JY, Koo JH, Kim TK. Effects of electrolyte supplements on body water homeostasis and exercise performance during exhaustive exerciseApplied Sciences. 2021;11(19):9093. doi:10.3390/app11199093

  5. Stanford Medicine. Electrolyte supplements don't prevent illness in athletes.

  6. Harris L, Braun M. Electrolytes: Oral electrolyte solutions. FP Essent. 2017 Aug;459:35-38. PMID:28806049

  7. Shaheen NA, Alqahtani AA, Assiri H, Alkhodair R, Hussein MA. Public knowledge of dehydration and fluid intake practices: Variation by participants' characteristics. BMC Public Health. 2018 Dec 5;18(1):1346. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-6252-5

By Sarah Garone, NDTR
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.