Those sugary sports drinks lure us with their shiny bright colors and cool sounding names. They tell us that if we drink them regularly, we’ll be able to compete like the pros. They talk of how they will replenish electrolytes in the body so we can outperform the competition. Adults and children (like my own) have fallen for their enticing ways – hook, line, and sinker.
But what does that really mean? What exactly are electrolytes, and do we really need to replenish them?
Bear with me while we go through the science of it for just a moment. Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge and are present in our blood and other body fluids. These ionic solutions are responsible for keeping our bodies properly hydrated. They have an important function, regulating how and where fluids are distributed in the body, bringing nutrients into cells while taking waste out of them.
Because electrolytes control the fluid in our bodies, they also affect the acidity of our blood (also known as pH), as well as our muscle and nerve function. For an optimally functioning body, it is important that we control and replenish electrolytes when we are depleted. Are sports drinks the only way to do it?
Do We Really Need Sports Drinks to Replenish Electrolytes?
The most commonly found electrolytes in the body are: sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, chloride, calcium, magnesium and phosphates. Our bodies lose fluids and electrolytes throughout the day through natural means, and they are replenished when we eat healthy meals. Therefore, on a typical day there should be no need to supplement with sports drinks if you are eating a nutrient-rich diet and drinking plenty of water.
We lose significantly more electrolytes when we sweat a lot during intense periods of exercise. That means long days of tournament playing or marathon type running. It does not typically refer to a one-hour soccer practice or a spin class.
For example, last year during the Susan G. Komen 3 Day, we walked over 25 miles on an intensely hot day. That day I added a bit of an electrolyte supplement to my water (and made sure to eat a banana for potassium and gluten-free pretzels for sodium during a break) to keep my energy levels up. Yet during a typical week of exercise and eating a healthy diet and drinking enough water, proper hydration sufficiently covers any electrolytes lost at the gym.
At times when we are under the weather, so to speak, we can also lose more substantial amounts of electrolytes through vomiting or excessively going to the bathroom. Electrolyte levels may become unbalanced if we don’t properly and sufficiently replenish them.
When our electrolyte levels become unstable it is usually because both water and electrolytes are lost, so it is important to remember that both need to be replaced. People often turn to sports drinks because water alone does not contain those necessary electrolyte minerals. Hence the rise of sports drinks.
The allure of the cool commercials with famous athletes and bright shiny colors have made sports drinks a marketer’s dream. They applaud the perceived ability of those colorful plastic bottles to vastly improve your overall performance. However, over the long term the sugar and dyes may be do your body more harm than good. Many experts say that the best electrolyte recovery is done simply by eating salty carbs and consuming water. Foods such as bananas, beans, green leafy vegetables, milk, nuts and seeds are also rich in electrolytes.
As for children who may lose electrolytes due to stomach bugs or illness, consider replenishing their bodies with milk. Just like adults, children can also become dehydrated during long periods of exercise. Researchers have found that milk is better than either a sports drink or water because it is a source of high quality protein, carbohydrates, calcium and electrolytes. Milk replaces sodium lost in sweat and helps the body retain fluid better.
If you do feel the need to supplement your typical diet with added electrolytes, you can also consider drinking coconut water plus a touch of Himalayan salt. The nutrition date for coconut water shows that it has five times more potassium than some of today’s most popular sports drinks. And the potassium is naturally-occurring rather than added. It’s low sodium content is not enough to replace the sodium lost by intense sweating, so some experts suggest adding a pinch or two of Himalayan sea salt.
Wondering whether you might have an electrolyte imbalance? The symptoms tend to mimic those of dehydration. Muscle cramping or spasms, abdominal cramping, feeling light-headed or faint, nausea, or confusion are all potential concerns of electrolyte imbalance. You can ask your doctor to run a panel if you feel like you may have an abnormal electrolyte imbalance.
With all that said, if you still decide to purchase sports drinks, consider consuming them only in moderation or even mixing a small amount into your water. They are often loaded with sugar and sold in large sized bottles, even though one 8 oz. glass is plenty. Some experts have said that sugary sports drinks provide a quick burst of minerals, but may deplete the body of these same minerals when consumed over time, so be careful about making sports drinks a daily habit! Also keep in mind that they are usually only recommended for endurance events lasting over long periods of time. Getting your essential vitamins and nutrients through your diet should mean there is no need to supplement from those shiny bottles that are trying to lure you in to their grasp.
Remember, eating a nutrient-rich diet usually supplies the amount of electrolytes in the body needed to keep it functioning normally. Keep your diet well balanced, and you can walk right past those shiny bright sports drink bottles at the supermarket!
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