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Electrolytes and hydration multipliers: What are they and when do you need them?

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Thirsty? If you’ve worked up a sweat, whether through a long workout session or from being outdoors on a hot day, you’ve not only lost water, but you’ve likely also lost some key minerals. And thanks to the growing hydration drink biz (which is on track to hit $1.82 billion by 2025), there are an increasing number of ways to quench your thirst and replace lost minerals: water, of course, along with electrolytes and hydration multipliers. Which do you grab? 

What are electrolytes?

Have you ever wondered why eating a banana helps curb muscle cramps or why eating too much salt causes weight gain? The answer: electrolytes. These essential minerals—potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and bicarbonate—are naturally occurring chemicals found in your body. 

Electrolytes are important for activating and relaxing your muscles, along with supporting fluid balance and nerve function. A banana helps cramping muscles relax because it contains potassium. Sodium is essential for survival—it’s one of the reasons your heart beats (too much sodium, though, can lead to water retention and bloating).

Do you need to drink electrolytes?

Your body naturally regulates electrolytes. In most cases, you’ll get enough electrolytes from eating whole foods—the best quality proteins available to you, along with vegetables, whole grains, and fruit.

Unless you do a lot of physical, and outdoor work on a daily basis, you don’t need to drink electrolytes regularly. Your levels will typically balance out on their own—it’s one of your body’s involuntary processes. However, levels may fluctuate throughout the day depending on factors like hydration, physical activity, illness, and body and environment temperature. Electrolyte levels that are either too high or too low can cause health problems such as irregular heartbeat, seizures, adrenal disorders, kidney failure, and heart failure. 

The best way to be proactive is to stay hydrated and be aware of your electrolyte intake. Fluid needs vary, and different factors such as your personal sweat rate, movement type, intensity, and duration will determine your optimal electrolyte balance.

But, when you’ve put out a lot of physical effort—say, through a long sweaty workout, or a lot of time in the heat—you may lose some electrolytes through perspiration. Electrolytes and hydration multipliers can help restore balance. 

The difference between electrolytes and hydration multipliers

Many sports drinks–Gatorade, Powerade, Body Armour, Propel, and Smartwater—contain sodium, potassium, and other key ingredients to help with hydration and electrolyte balance. Compared to sports drinks, hydration multipliers usually contain a greater concentration of electrolytes. They’re advertised as having an optimal sodium-glucose ratio that helps your body absorb water at a faster rate than plain water.

For example, Liquid I.V., a popular hydration multiplier that typically costs between $1 to $2 per stick, advertises it has three times more electrolytes than a regular sports drink, along with additional vitamins. (And to be clear, it doesn’t actually multiply your drink—adding electrolytes to a 16.9-ounce bottle of water doesn’t give it the same impact as drinking 51 ounces.) Hydration multipliers usually come powdered, have a wide range of flavors, and are becoming easier to find in grocery stores. Or, you can order online.

Drinks to try

If you’re watching added sugars or alternative sweeteners, read drink labels carefully. The jury’s still out on artificial sweeteners—some research has linked them to obesity. If you’re looking for flavor without sugar or artificial additives, trade products like Crystal Light for fruity alternatives like True Lemon. You can also make your own infused water with real fruit, veggies, and herbs. 

Popular commercial drinks often contain a lot of added sugars. For example, 12 ounces of Gatorade Thirst Quencher has 21 grams of added sugar—that’s about five teaspoons. (For perspective, guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend no more than six teaspoons of added sugars a day for women and 9 for men.) 

That said, sugar isn’t just a sweetener—it’s also a chemical that actually helps your body absorb water, and it doesn’t take anywhere near five teaspoons to do the job. If a hint of sugar sounds up your alley, try hydration products like Hydrant, Taste Salud, or Goodonya. If you’re looking for a sugar-free alternative to popular sports drinks, mixes and tablets like LMNT, Drink Nectar, Cure, and nuun are easy to carry with you. Concentrated electrolyte drops like Daylyte and Lyteshow let you add flavorless, sugar-free doses to a favorite drink (like herbal tea). Or, if you can tolerate dairy, you can reach for one of the oldest ways to refresh your body: milk. It naturally contains some sodium, potassium, and a little lactose—a form of sugar—making it a more effective way to hydrate than water. 

When do you need an electrolyte boost?

Here are four scenarios when you might consider an electrolyte boost:

1. Lots of physical activity

Sports drinks were originally invented to help athletes replenish their electrolyte levels. Since performance suffers without adequate nutrients, electrolyte boosts are a good idea after 60 minutes or more of higher-intensity physical activity. This is a rule of thumb—adjust the time depending on the type of physical activity, intensity level, and hydration status before movement begins.

2. Excessive sweating

Your body produces sweat to help maintain body temperature. And since electrolytes leave the body through sweat, it’s important to stay on top of your hydration. If you’re feeling light-headed, thirsty, or notice excessive sweating or a “salty sweat” on your skin or clothes, take it as a sign that you need more sodium, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

3. Illness

Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, and you’ll need to replenish your electrolytes. Remember, aim for half your body weight in ounces of water each day.

4. Other circumstances

If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating you may also benefit from additional electrolytes. Speak with your primary care physician if you have any questions or concerns relating to these topics.

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