After a long workout in the heat, the first thing you should do is chug some water or electrolyte drinks to replenish your fluids. But many store-bought electrolyte beverages are packed with sugar and other additions. Here's how to choose the healthiest drinks and foods to balance your electrolytes.
Why Do You Need Electrolytes?
When you think of electrolytes, you may immediately imagine gulping down a bottle of bright-colored Gatorade after a sweaty workout. These colorful drinks are supposedly packed with these mysterious elements — things that are somehow meant to replenish your body and make you feel better.
But what are electrolytes, and why do our bodies need them? They're minerals with an electric charge that are naturally in your body, according to MedlinePlus. They're found in various parts of your body like your blood, urine and tissues — and mostly in your bodily fluids.
Electrolytes are crucial for a variety of bodily functions, MedlinePlus notes. They help balance water in your body, as well as your body's pH levels. They help move nutrients into cells, and waste out of them. They also contribute to your nerves, muscles, heart and brain all working properly.
Different electrolytes fall into three main categories: acids, bases and salts. They include sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate and magnesium. Potassium, for example, can be found in foods like bananas and helps maintain cardiac rhythm along with neuromuscular conduction, according to a February 2014 study published in Laboratory Medicine.
If you're low on electrolytes or are experiencing an imbalance, this can lead to both short-term and long-term health problems. Typically, you lose electrolytes when you lose water: when you're sweating, or when you're sick with vomiting, for example.
A loss of electrolytes results in what's known as an electrolyte imbalance. When this happens, it throws off your body's homeostasis. Whether you have an electrolyte deficiency or too much of an electrolyte, this can cause problems and result in experiencing things like fever, hyponatremia or hypermagnesemia.
According to Mayo Clinic, hyponatremia occurs when your sodium levels are dangerously low, and your body's water level rises, making your cells swell. This can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue and, if left untreated, seizures.
Hypermagnesemia, on the other hand, involves an overload of magnesium in the blood. Symptoms of hypermagnesemia include weakness, low blood pressure and, in severe cases, cardiac arrest, according to a July 2018 study published in Acute Medicine & Surgery.
Low calcium can have a negative effect on your bones and possibly result in osteoporosis. Too much calcium can also be a problem, however, and may lead to kidney failure and arrhythmia.
Read more: Vinegar and Water Diet
Foods With Electrolytes
The good news is you don't need to buy a bunch of expensive electrolyte beverages from the store to balance your electrolytes or fuel up after a workout. In fact, you can find pretty much all your needed electrolytes in nutritious, healthy whole foods.
Dairy products, such as whole milk or yogurt, contain plenty of electrolytes. One glass of whole milk contains 210 milligrams of sodium, 644 milligrams of potassium and 551 milligrams of calcium, nearly half your daily value for calcium. Yogurt is also packed with potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.
Not surprisingly, you can get a lot of good electrolytes from vegetables as well. One cup of cooked butternut squash contains 582 milligrams of potassium, 60 milligrams of magnesium and some calcium and phosphorus. Spinach is also a good source of potassium and magnesium (and even calcium!). Other fruits and vegetables that contain a decent amount of electrolytes include apricots, prunes, tomatoes, broccoli, oranges, beans and kale.
Read more: Why Trying a Water Fast Is So Risky
Best Electrolyte Drinks
If you're eating a varied and balanced diet filled with fruits, vegetables, dairy and lean proteins, it's likely you'll be getting the right amount of electrolytes your body needs. But in certain situations — such as when you're sick and when you have been losing water through vomiting and diarrhea, or you are an intensive athlete who sweats profusely every day — you may need a bit of an electrolyte boost.
In cases of dehydration, sports and electrolyte drinks can be helpful, the Cleveland Clinic notes. The most popular ones include beverages like Gatorade, Hi Lyte and Bodyarmor Lyte. They can be bought at the store, or they can come in tablets or electrolyte drink powders to drop into water.
If you're undergoing rigorous training and run the risk of dehydration, one of these electrolyte beverages may come in handy once in a while. You can also order some electrolyte drink powders to make your own. Here are some of the healthiest electrolyte drinks you can find in stores or make at home.
Water: Water is the original dehydration solution. With no calories or sugar, pure water can be refreshing and replenishing. The Cleveland Clinic recommends initially sticking to water instead of electrolyte drinks if you're working out for
only about an hour. There are some brands of water, however, that contain electrolytes — such as Smartwater.
Coconut water: Coconut water has gained traction recently as one of the best electrolyte drinks. Despite its name, coconut water is technically a juice found inside the coconut. When it's unflavored, it's low in sugar and calories. It also naturally contains electrolytes like potassium, manganese and sodium, but these levels can vary depending on the type of coconut water.
Pedialyte: Pedialyte isn't just for children or hangovers. As an oral rehydration solution, it's been used worldwide to help fight dehydration and replenish fluids when people are ill. Pedialyte typically also contains more sodium and less sugar than sports drinks.
Gatorade: Gatorade is possibly the best-known electrolyte drink, guzzled down by athletes, average teenagers and people who simply enjoy the taste. Gatorade contains electrolytes like sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
The reality is, however, that many sports drinks like Gatorade contain a lot of sugar (up to 14 grams). Sugar can be helpful in replenishing glycogen stores during and after a workout and keeping you energized. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates that your muscles draw upon to move and use energy.
The more intense your workout, the faster your glycogen stores are used up. However, too much sugar does more harm than good, and can increase your risk of dying from heart disease, among other health problems.
Homemade electrolyte drinks: With just a few simple ingredients, you can make the best electrolyte drinks at home, and they can be just as hydrating and restoring as expensive beverages. Mix and match between things like fresh juices, ginger, coconut water, lemon juice and sea salt. Toss in some electrolyte drink powders, like powdered magnesium or calcium, if you want to boost your creation. You'll be able to get all the electrolytes you need simply from a healthy diet filled with fresh fruits, vegetables and homemade drinks without all the extra sugars.
- MedlinePlus: "Fluid and Electrolyte Balance"
- Laboratory Medicine: "Electrolytes: The Salts of the Earth"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hyponatremia"
- Rush University Medical Center: "Body Electric"
- MyFoodData.com: "10 Foods High in Electrolytes"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Electrolyte Drinks: Beneficial or Not?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Nutrition and Healthy Eating"
- ScienceDirect: "Pedialyte"
- Center for Weight and Health: "Looking Beyond the Marketing Claims of New Beverages"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for Coaches and Athletes"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "The Role of Skeletal Muscle Glycogen Breakdown for Regulation of Insulin Sensitivity by Exercise"
- Harvard Health: "Eating Too Much Added Sugar Increases the Risk of Dying With Heart Disease"
- Piedmont Healthcare: "Signs You Have an Electrolyte Imbalance"
- MyFoodData.com: "Nutrition Facts for Cooked Butternut Squash"
- Acute Medicine & Surgery: "The Characteristics of Patients With Hypermagnesemia Who Underwent Emergency Hemodialysis"