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When to Pick Electrolyte Drinks Over Water

5 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.

5 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. The elderly 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 Reyzan Shali, MD, internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Vista. “Replacing electrolytes and carbohydrates are quite important, but when choosing between electrolyte drinks it’s important to look at the label.”

Five simple ways to stay hydrated and replace electrolytes

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

1. Start with water

Water might be better after shorter, less strenuous activities. Bear in mind that the fabled eight glasses per day may not be enough if it’s warm and you’re working hard. Everyone’s different, but a gallon may be more suitable for most adults in these conditions. Eating water-rich fruits and veggies, like watermelon and cucumber, helps you stay hydrated too. 

“In general, water should be sufficient hydration for a regular workout less than 60 minutes duration, but electrolyte drinks are beneficial for high intensity workouts more than an hour,” adds Dr. Shali.

2. Choose wisely

The American Dietetic Association says most people don’t benefit from low vitamin levels found in many enhanced drinks, which give little consideration to the nutrients most people actually need to supplement, like calcium, folate and vitamin D. And the calories add up: one popular energy drink packs in 130 calories a serving, which is higher than cola.

Dr. Shali says if you want the benefits of electrolytes, choose a drink that lists 6-7% carbohydrates per serving. 

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.