Electrolyte drinks for physical performance – helpful or not?

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Electrolyte drinks for physical performance – helpful or not?

Whether it’s Gatorade, PowerAde, or some other sports beverage available on the market, these electrolyte drinks have become a big business. More than 20 billion dollars of sales each year spur on these non-carbonated, water-based beverages, containing vitamins or minerals, sugar and salt, potassium, and electrolytes.

The selling-point of these neon-colored drinks claim to improve your physical and athletic performance in addition to helping you recover after an intense workout. But do the health benefits they claim actually work?  While maybe not for everyone, there is a time and place for electrolyte drinks that can be beneficial for someone who needs them.

Sports beverages main selling point is the content of electrolytes they contain. All humans require electrolytes to survive. Many automatic processes in the body rely on a small electric current to function, and electrolytes provide this charge. 

Electrolytes are minerals found in your blood that help regulate and control the balance of fluids in your body.  These substances conduct electricity when dissolved in water and are essential for a number of bodily functions. These minerals play a role in regulating blood pressure, muscle contractions, they hydrate the body, balance blood acidity, rebuild damaged tissue, and keep your system running smoothly.

The main electrolytes in the human body are the minerals of sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride. These electrolytes are needed for optimal health and physical performance.  Whenever we exercise intently (sweating), or experience vomiting or diarrhea, we can significantly lose these minerals that could result in dangerous dehydration, muscle cramping and spasms.  If you’ve ever felt the effects of dehydration – dry lips and tongue, weakness, headache, dizziness, nausea, or cramps – it’s not a fun experience and can be very dangerous.

When you are exercising, the amount of electrolytes lost depends of several factors – your weight, fitness level, intensity and duration of the exercise, humidity, and how much you sweat.  When working out, the main electrolyte you lose is sodium.

Who can benefit from using a beverage with electrolytes?

Not everyone needs or even wants to drink sports drinks with electrolytes.  If you are working out less than 60 minutes at a moderate intensity (4 mph walk or less), you do not need a sports drink.  Plain water will supply you with the hydration you need best. 

However, if you are working out 75 minutes or longer at an intense pace, a sports drink is a wise choice since you’ll sweating more and losing some electrolytes.

What to look for in a beverage containing electrolytes

There are many beverages to choose from when searching for an athletic enhancing drink to prevent dehydration. Electrolyte drinks come in many forms – tablets you drop into water, powder to mix into water or liquids already to use right away.

The key is to know that not all electrolyte drinks are the same. The first thing you want to do is read the Nutrition Facts Label. A typical 12 ounce electrolyte or sports drink with the right proportion of nutrients should look like this:

·      21 grams of total carbohydrate – this represents 7% of the daily value

·      150 milligrams of sodium

·      35 milligrams of potassium

If you are an ultra-endurance athletes, you may need a more specialized electrolyte drink for endurance that contains greater potassium and sodium, plus additional minerals like magnesium and calcium.

Other beverage options some athletes may consider are vitamin waters or coconut water.  Coconut water can be a good option if you’re looking for a more natural electrolyte drink.  Just read the nutrition facts label first to check on the amount of sugar added.