What Are Electrolyte Drinks?

Electrolyte drinks help with rehydration

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During intense exercise you probably lose a lot of sweat. In addition to lost fluid, sweat also contains electrolyte minerals such as sodium and potassium, which need to be replenished to maintain proper hydration.

Enter electrolyte drinks. These sport beverages are designed to help you recover after exercise and ensure your electrolyte needs are met. Read on to learn when these drinks are necessary and what the research says.

What Are Electrolyte Drinks?

Electrolyte drinks are beverages that contain water, carbohydrates and electrolyte minerals such as sodium and potassium (some may also contain magnesium and phosphorus). They can be purchased as powders, tablets or ready-to-drink fluids.

These enhanced beverages are meant to be used after prolonged sport to promote rehydration. When you sweat during intense exercise, electrolytes get depleted and need to be replenished. Sports drinks help replenish electrolytes and carbs that your body uses up during exercise. 

Electrolyte drinks may also be used to treat dehydration caused by gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. While most electrolyte drinks contain 6% to 8% sugar or carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores that are used up during physical exertion, some electrolyte drinks can also be found in sugar-free versions (made with artificial sweeteners), and only contain fluid and electrolytes.

The electrolytes can be naturally occurring or added to beverages. Examples of electrolyte drinks are coconut water, which naturally contains potassium, and commercial sports beverages such as Gatorade, Biosteel, and Powerade, which are made with added sodium and potassium.

Electrolyte drinks offer hydration and may help improve athletic performance. Studies show that carbohydrate–electrolyte drinks consumed continuously during exercise are the best way to stay hydrated during prolonged sport, and are a better choice than water.

Electrolytes are essential minerals that have an electric charge, and are found in many foods and beverages. Electrolyte minerals include sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, and magnesium. They help balance the body's pH and water levels, move nutrients into cells, remove waste from cells, and are part of the normal function of the brain, nerves, muscles and heart.

What Does the Research Say?

Electrolyte drinks are often relied upon by athletes to replenish fluid, electrolytes, and carbs that are lost during exercise. They are meant for use after prolonged exercise and sweat loss, which leads to the loss of body fluid.

Electrolyte beverages are not meant to be consumed after causal exercise without sweat loss. They contain salt and sugar, which aren't necessary after a leisurely walk or light fitness activities. Too much salt and sugar can be detrimental, but may be necessary to replenish after intense sport.

Dehydration also decreases athletic performance and is a risk to health. Losing more than 3% to 4% of total body-water during exercise (dehydration) can reduce cardiac output, impair the body's thermoregulation, impair muscle blood flow, and make exercise more difficult. Electrolyte beverages are recommended to offset dehydration and these associated issues.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends using electrolyte beverages when intense exercise exceeds 1 hour in duration or is taking place in hot, humid environments where sweat rates are significantly increased.

Electrolytes in sports beverages help you maintain fluid balance and are essential for normal muscle contractions. Losing electrolytes can lead to early fatigue and muscle cramping, but drinking electrolyte beverages during exercise can prevent this from occurring as well as enhance performance.

Potential Side Effects

Electrolytes drinks are sodium-enriched sugar-sweetened beverages, so they should only be used after exercising or when ill to replenish glycogen stores and any sodium that's lost through sweat. If they are casually consumed daily as a standard beverage, the diet can become too high in sugar and sodium, which can lead to chronic health issues including heart disease. The added sugars are also linked to tooth decay, especially when paired with poor oral hygiene.

Because these beverages contain electrolytes, consuming too much can result in high levels of sodium (hypernatremia) or potassium (hyperkalemia). Too much sodium can affect blood pressure levels.

Meanwhile, hyperkalemia can cause life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias, muscle weakness, or paralysis. Potassium-enriched beverages should be avoided by people with severe renal disease or other underlying conditions that increase their risk of hyperkalemia.

Electrolyte Drinks vs. Food With Electrolytes

In addition to sport beverages, electrolytes such as sodium and potassium can be found in many foods. The best way to get enough electrolytes is through consuming a varied diet of nutritious foods and beverages.

Sodium can be naturally occurring or added to food. Most of the sodium in our diet comes from processed, packaged, and restaurant food. Even sweet foods such as baked goods contain sodium as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), so foods don't need to taste salty to be a source of sodium.

Potassium is found in vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, fish, poultry, beef, and dairy foods. Specific vegetables and fruits that are high in potassium include bananas, oranges, melon, squash, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and dried fruit such as apricots, raisins and prunes.

Electrolyte drinks are recommend for quick rehydration during and after sport. It may be difficult to eat foods during exercise, so drinks are an easier choice.

A Word From Verywell

Electrolyte drinks contain fluid, carbohydrates, and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, and are used to help with rehydration after intense exercise or during illness. There's no need to use these types of drinks after a causal workout, since they contain sodium and sugar that are only required after high sweat loss or intense exercise.

If you are unsure if an electrolyte drink is right for you, talk with a healthcare provider about your needs. You also can talk with a registered dietitian or even certified personal trainer for advice on electrolyte replacement.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you get electrolytes naturally?

    Electrolytes are minerals that naturally occur in many foods and beverages. Consuming a varied diet is the best way to get electrolytes. For example, potassium is found in bananas, dried apricots, and oranges.

  • What is the best way to replenish electrolytes?

    After intense exercise that lasts for 1 hour or more or has a high volume of sweat loss, the best way to replenish fluids and electrolytes is with an electrolyte beverages that contains water, carbohydrate, sodium and potassium.

  • What is the best source of electrolytes?

    The best source of electrolytes will likely depend on the electrolyte you want to replace. The best source of sodium is salt, which is found in most foods. The best sources of potassium include dried apricots, lentils, squash, potatoes, and bananas. The best sources of calcium include milk, cheese, yogurt, canned salmon, leafy greens and fortified beverages.

13 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.
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By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.