What are electrolyte supplements?
Electrolyte supplements are usually in a tablet or powder form; which you mix with water to optimize hydration.
They are commonly used before, during, or after activity activities that may cause the body to lose electrolytes or accumulate an imbalance of electrolytes.
They usually contain a complete mix of electrolytes necessary to keep you hydrated and should contain:
- magnesium (not in every case)
Who uses electrolytes and why do they use them?
They are most commonly used by athletes and people who workout or stay active.
It is believed by many athletes that electrolyte supplements will help them optimize performance during strenuous activities that cause the body to sweat. It is also believed that they can enhance exercise recovery for the same reason.
Hot yoga and massage professionals believe that balancing electrolytes can help muscles stay limber and supple; preventing tightness and small muscle tears.
NFL quarterback Tom Brady recently brought fame to electrolyte supplements; as he claims to take them throughout the day to help him stay limber and “pliable”.
Lastly, high water consumption (especially distilled water) can flush the body of its electrolytes; meaning the body can actually be out of balance without the aid of exercise or sweating.
What are the benefits of electrolyte supplementation?
It is important to stay hydrated during physical activity. There are hundreds of peer-reviewed studies to support the impact of hydration on athletic performance.
Additionally, hydration also has correlations to improved mental function and soft tissue dexterity.
Electrolytes help regulate body fluids. When you sweat, you lose those electrolytes. It’s important to replenish during physical activity to avoid muscle cramps and fatigue.
Long-term loss of electrolytes can actually carry serious risks like seizures, irregular heart rhythm, or kidney failure.
Taking exogenous – supplemental electrolytes – is supposed to help ensure that the body maintains proper hydration and electrolyte balance in spite of physical activity or the consumption of fluids that may flush the body of normal electrolyte balance.
How do people normally get electrolytes?
Consuming electrolytes through food or liquid are the most common ways people get electrolytes. Less common, are mineral baths and an IVs (usually in cases of extreme dehydration).
It’s possible a person could have a diet low in electrolytes; especially if they are consuming a low sodium diet. In these cases, ensuring natural electrolyte consumption would likely be important for athletic performance.
Do exogenous electrolyte supplements do what they’re supposed to?
Consuming electrolytes is necessary after an excessive exercise session or bout of heavy sweating; simply drinking water cannot replace electrolytes. In fact, it can actually flush out remaining electrolytes in some cases.
Exogenous electrolyte supplements are a very good way to replenish electrolytes; especially if you’re an athlete that is seeking to achieve optimal recovery.
A typical healthy diet should provide the necessary recovery without supplementation but may not prove to be quite as effective. if you are a runner, hot yoga practitioner, or something along those lines, you may see better hydration results with electrolyte supplements.
How do they compare with regular water, an IV, or salt?
For the average person drinking water during/ after a workout session is perfectly acceptable as you lose water faster than electrolytes.
For athletes or those who sweat excessively, water isn’t enough. Electrolyte supplements are extremely helpful in replacing a full spectrum of electrolytes.
Salt can help. However, most salts don’t contain all electrolytes, and too much can lead to swelling of hands and feet due to electrolyte imbalances and water retention.
In cases of severe dehydration, an IV may be necessary to replenish electrolytes and fluids.
What benefits come from electrolyte supplements?
Theoretically, electrolyte supplements should simply prevent the negative effects of electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.
This could include:
- Preventing fatigue
- Delaying a drop in physical performance
- Enhancing muscle recovery post-workout
- Improving flexibility and dexterity in the body
What does research say?
Research tells use that electrolytes are probably more effective when consumed with a proper amount of fluid; 8 ounces of water (probably more).
Additionally, electrolytes may be more bioavailable if they are paired with simple sugars (this one is one of the most well-researched supplements). Absorption can potentially take longer if they are consumed with a regular meal.
These factors/behaviors may determine which supplements are more effective than others.
Do electrolyte supplements work? (final verdict)
The answer depends on what you expect them to do.
If you want to ward off the negative effects of dehydration and achieve the benefits of sustained electrolyte balance, the answer is YES.
If you are expecting them to provide some type of enhanced performance or boost, the answer is NO. Supplementing electrolytes doesn’t inherently improve performance, it can only prevent the loss of performance.
Lastly, there are probably benefits for most people to supplement with electrolytes if they are active or a heavy water consumer. There are only positive benefits of maintaining regular hydration and no downsides of supplementing with electrolytes to achieve this.