Electrolyte supplements, which are touted for boosting hydration and supporting recovery, are having a moment right now amongst everyone from hardcore endurance athletes to weekend warriors to super-clean eaters. When you take a look at the nutritional information for some of these ready-to-drink beverages, powder mixes, and quick-dissolving tablets, though, you might notice something surprising: Many of them contain quite a bit of sodium.
Nope, it’s definitely not a mistake. Many electrolyte supplements are intentionally very salty—and for good reason. Here’s a refresher on what electrolyte supplements are all about.
Electrolytes are a category of minerals that exist naturally in blood and water throughout the body. These minerals—which include potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and yes, sodium—are essential for performing everyday bodily functions, says ISSA-certified nutritionist Dan Gallagher, of Aegle Nutrition. They control fluid retention in your cells, help your muscles contract, regulate nerve function, support your central nervous system, and move nutrients and waste in and out of your cells.
Sodium, in particular, is particularly useful for maintaining proper fluid balance, says sports dietitian Emily Fultz, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., a sports nutritionist with Fit with Food. Or, as researchers put it, “sodium is essential for cellular homeostasis.” That’s right, despite the mass amount of anti-sodium rhetoric out there, the stuff isn’t “bad” point-blank. On the contrary, adequate sodium intake is important for proper bodily functioning, especially if it’s been lost (for instance, through sweat), she explains.
Major organs like the kidneys and the endocrine system help regulate sodium and other electrolyte levels in the blood, which means that the body has the levels of electrolytes it needs to function properly. However, heavy sweating can cause an imbalance. Illnesses that impact the major organs, like cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, liver disorder, and certain cancers, can lead to imbalances, too.
When we don’t have the proper amount of electrolytes in our bodies, we can feel weak and feeble. In fact, the symptoms associated with dehydration are the same as the symptoms associated with electrolyte imbalance, says Fultz. Irritability, muscle cramps, nausea, digestive issues, and heart irregularities can all signal an electrolyte imbalance.
That’s Where Electrolytes Supplements Come In…
Electrolytes supplements are designed to provide the body with a cocktail of the minerals lost in sweat. “They are a fast, efficient way for athletes to achieve their hydration needs before, during, and/or after working out,” says Fultz. The exact amount of each electrolyte will vary from brand to brand, but generally, these supplements’ main hitters are sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Because of sodium’s key role in fluid balance, mixes often contain higher concentrations of sodium than of these other minerals (so don’t be alarmed by the number of milligrams you see on the label!).
One International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism study found that individuals lose an average of 360 to 1,620 milligrams of sodium per workout, illustrating why it’s a must to restock on that sodium, as well as the other electrolytes.
“If you’ve lost a lot of sodium, you want to add sodium to your water, for example, to help draw water into your cells and enhance hydration,” Fultz explains. Without ample sodium and other electrolytes, the water you drink essentially passes right through your system, notes Gallagher. You need electrolytes in order for your body to hold onto the water you drink.
Thankfully, these salt- and mineral-laden supplements really do the job. One small 2021 study published in Nutrients found that electrolyte drinks were superior at rehydrating individuals post-exercise than plain water.
Who Are Electrolyte Supplements Best For?
Typically, athletes who train hard for longer than an hour at a time do well to refuel with electrolyte supplements, according to Fultz. That said, warm temperatures, high humidity, heavier weight, and a lower training age can all lead to increased sweat loss, so anyone moving their body under those conditions—even if for less than an hour—may want to consider supplementing. The longer and sweatier your workout is, the more you may benefit from consuming these minerals.
Guidance To Keep In Mind
When taken as directed, electrolyte supplements are widely considered safe. However, taking an electrolyte mix because you like the taste and not because you’ve been sweating has its risks. Ingesting too much potassium or sodium, in particular, could contribute to muscle weakness and muscle arrhythmia and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, respectively. In the case of sodium, it’s important to look at your electrolyte supp intake within the larger context of your exercise routine and diet.
“If you consume a sodium-filled drink when your body has already consumed enough salt, it throws your kidneys out of whack,” explains Fultz. When this occurs, rather than help your body hold onto water, the sodium actually pulls water from your body’s cells, dehydrating you.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults (even active adults) limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. While some electrolyte mixes contain minimal sodium, others provide between 500 and 1,000 milligrams, so you’ll want to be mindful of your diet and just how much you’re sweating when adding these to your routine.
If an option that’s higher in sodium makes sense for your needs, check out Liquid I.V. Hydration Multiplier, which packs 510 milligrams of sodium per serving and comes in fun flavors like Acai Berry and Passion Fruit. Popular options on the lower end of the sodium spectrum include Kaged Muscle’s Hydra-Charge (the Pink Lemonade is a fan favorite), which contains 115 milligrams, or True Athlete Balanced Hydration Powder, which has just 90 milligrams. Looking for something in the middle? Try Nuun Hydration Sport for Exercise tablets, which contain 300 milligrams of sodium a pop. Or, if you prefer something lower in sodium that can slip into water and other drinks undetected, unflavored BodyTech Liquid Electrolytes (which contains 1000 milligrams) is a good go-to.
When in doubt, Fultz recommends checking in with a sports nutritionist to get a better sense of whether these super-salty add-ins make sense for your lifestyle—and how much you want to chug per day.