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When to Pick Electrolyte Drinks Over Water

6 tips to avoid dehydration and electrolyte imbalances

A mature man enjoys a sports drink with electrolytes after a vigorous exercise, one of five reasons to drink it over water.

6 tips to avoid dehydration and electrolyte imbalances

Fancy, fizzy or fruity, bottled water is everywhere. When you get thirsty, you can turn on the tap or tap into your wallet. But are “functional beverages” — fortified drinks that claim to provide specific health benefits — better for you than plain water?


When it comes to replacing electrolytes, the answer is yes — in certain circumstances.


Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium and magnesium that your body needs to function. The saltiness of sweat is a reminder that you lose electrolytes when you perspire.


Most of the time, even during hard workouts or hot weather, people can stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. However, there are times when replacing electrolytes is necessary. Elderly people are at especially high risk of deficiency. 


“Some of the common symptoms of electrolyte imbalances include muscle twitching and muscle cramps, increased thirst, poor endurance, salt craving and irritability,” says Zachary Sprague, DO, a family medicine physician with expertise in sports medicine at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad. “Replacing electrolytes and carbohydrates are quite important, but when choosing between electrolyte drinks it’s important to look at the label.”

Six simple ways to stay hydrated and replace electrolytes

If you’re feeling thirsty, especially after exercising, consider these tips before choosing a beverage:

1.    Hydrate early and start with water

Pre-hydrate before exercise. Once you become dehydrated, it is much more difficult to rehydrate and replace electrolytes. Lack of electrolytes could also lead to poor performance during exercise and athletic competition.

2.    Let your thirst guide you

Water usually works well after shorter, less strenuous activities. How much water you need usually depends on the intensity and type of workout and climate.Everyone is different so it may be easier to listen to your body and let your thirst guide you.


So, when is it helpful to drink electrolyte-enhanced drinks?


“In general, water should be sufficient hydration for a regular workout, but electrolyte drinks are beneficial in high intensity workouts in warm environments, regardless of duration,” says Dr. Sprague.


Eating water-rich fruits and veggies, like watermelon and cucumber, contribute to your overall daily intake of fluids and helps you stay hydrated too.

3.    Water vs sports drinks: choose wisely

Sports drinks contain electrolytes and carbohydrates in addition to water. They can be helpful for maintaining hydration levels during high intensity exercise. The main electrolytes in sports drinks are sodium and potassium. Carbs often come in the form of sugars, such as glucose, sucrose and fructose.


Limiting sugary drinks is important. Dr. Sprague says if you want the benefits of electrolytes, choose a drink that lists 4 to 8% carbohydrates per serving.

4.    Pair plain water with a salty snack

Because most electrolyte drinks are packed with sugar, consider forgoing one in favor of eating a salty snack like mixed nuts.

5.    Try coconut or cactus water

Unsweetened coconut water is naturally rich in electrolytes and has less sugar than most sports drinks if none has been added. And though hard to find, cactus water delivers electrolytes with less sugar than coconut water.

6.    Make your own electrolyte drink

Pull out your blender and whip up a nutritious beverage made with celery, apple and lemon, or with bananas, almond milk and kale.

The cover of the September 2019 issue of San Diego Health Magazine.

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.