Most people think they understand the benefits of hydration. Staying hydrated is all about drinking water to prevent dehydration, right?
Not quite. Drinking water is only half the hydration picture. You also need electrolytes.
Modern society has over-emphasized the water consumption piece. And so you have teachers, coaches, and concerned parents all spouting the same stuff: Drink 8 glasses of water per day to stay healthy. Or was it 6? I forget, but keep drinking! Stay hydrated kids!
Unfortunately, when we vociferously encourage water consumption—and barely mention electrolytes—we create systemic health problems that range from frustrating to severe.
On the frustrating end of the spectrum are symptoms like low energy, tiredness, headaches, and brain fog. These symptoms can plague someone for years before they identify the cause.
I speak from experience. When I added more electrolytes to my hydration routine, my jiu-jitsu game, cognitive ability, and energy levels all benefited.
On the severe end, you have hyponatremia. This condition of low blood sodium affects around 15% of elite endurance athletes, causing confusion, seizures, brain damage, and occasionally death in the aftermath of the race.
What’s the primary cause of exercise-associated hyponatremia? Drinking too much plain water.
These aren’t just back-of-the-mind concerns folks. Getting hydration dialed in is an essential element of getting one’s health in order.
Today I’ll review the benefits of proper hydration, and some of these benefits may surprise you. But before I cover those benefits, let’s define what it means to be hydrated.
What Does Hydration Mean?
Most people think that hydration means drinking water. And they’re not wrong. That’s one of the dictionary definitions.
But another definition more accurately reflects the essence of healthy hydration: maintaining adequate fluids in bodily tissues. In other words, healthy hydration is synonymous with proper fluid balance.
Fluid balance matters. It’s what keeps your blood flowing, your sweat glands primed, your eyes lubricated, your waste management system moving along, and much more.
We aren’t 60% water weight for nothing. Water is the solvent of life.
But proper fluid balance requires more than just drinking water. Drinking fluids is important, but it’s just one part of the system.
Maintaining proper fluid balance also requires:
- The daily yeoman work of the heart and kidneys.
- A slew of hormones like aldosterone, renin, antidiuretic hormone (ADH), and angiotensin.
- Not drinking too much water. (Drinking to thirst solves this concern).
- Adequate electrolyte intake.
The two actionable pieces here are to consume sufficient water and sufficient electrolytes. This brings us to our practical hydration equation:
Hydration = water + electrolytes.
Let’s spend a moment on electrolytes now.
Sodium and Potassium: The Hydration Electrolytes
Sodium and potassium are your key fluid balancing minerals. They’re your hydration electrolytes.
Sodium maintains fluid balance outside of cells while potassium maintains fluid balance inside cells. They balance each other out. An example will help illustrate.
If you eat too much sodium and too little potassium, your blood volume (and blood pressure) will rise. You see this a lot in modern diets that are high in salty refined foods and low in potassium-rich vegetables.
The good solution is to bump up potassium while replacing salty refined foods with well-salted whole foods and LMNT.
Sodium and potassium also collaborate through a protein attached to every living cell: the sodium-potassium pump. By pumping sodium and potassium ions through the cell membrane, this pump enables electrochemical communication from cell to cell. It’s literally how your brain cells interface.
Most of the hydration benefits below are related to fluid balance, sodium-potassium pumps, or some combination.
8 Hydration Benefits
When you dial in your hydration game with fluids and electrolytes, good things happen. Here are the big ones.
#1: Better energy
Feeling lethargic is a common symptom of dehydration (net water loss) and sodium deficiency. Both can cause low energy.
But since dehydration is rare in healthy people, my money is usually on sodium.
It makes sense, once you understand how electrolytes contribute to your energy. Not only does sodium prime the pumps that allow nerve impulses to fire, but electrolytes are also essential for turning food energy to usable energy via cellular respiration.
I see energy issues all the time in active low-carb folks. These people lose loads of sodium through sweat and urine, but don’t adequately replace it. But keep in mind that this is not unique to low-carbers. Anyone who is active (especially in hot, humid, or high-elevation environments) can experience this same problem and generally tend to benefit from bumping up sodium intake.
As a result, they develop a spectrum of symptoms dubbed keto flu. When they get their electrolytes handled (particularly sodium), the symptoms flutter away like a delicate butterfly.
#2: Athletic performance
Did you know that athletes can sweat out up to 7 grams of sodium on a hot day? That’s over 3 teaspoons of salt! We’ve talked with NHL strength & Conditioning coaches that have tracked upwards to 10 g of sodium loss in their athletes during a single game or hard practice!
Yes, when you sweat, you lose both fluids and electrolytes—mostly sodium. Both need to be replaced to recharge, recover, and fuel future activity.
But many hydration guidelines (like those promulgated by the American College of Sports Medicine) focus solely on fluid replacement. As a result, we have a spate of hyponatremia in athletes.
Hyponatremia doesn’t just affect exercise performance. It affects one’s basic wellbeing. In severe cases, it can be fatal.
That’s why educated active people are now taking sodium along with fluids. It’s a simple solution to a serious problem.
#3: Cognitive function
Brain cells require sodium and potassium to transmit nerve impulses. If you’re short on either, cognition will suffer.
Being super low on sodium actually causes the brain to swell. It's a dangerous situation that can lead to permanent brain damage.
But even mild sodium deficiencies can lead to difficulty concentrating, focusing, and thinking. This symptom is typically labeled “brain fog”, and it can be quite frustrating if you can’t identify the cause.
#4: Fewer muscle cramps
Muscle cramps can be excruciating. But what causes them?
Many sources blame dehydration, but I don’t completely buy that. Even super dehydrated athletes, research has found, don’t cramp more frequently.
Insufficient sodium seems to be the more likely culprit for most folks. Consider the following:
- Industrial workers in the 1920s stopped cramping after receiving salt supplements.
- Football players who lose more sodium through sweat tend to cramp more.
- Dialysis patients cramp less when sodium is normalized.
And so if you’re cramping frequently, I’d suggest you dial in your sodium intake first. If that doesn’t help, expand your search to other potential causes.
#5: Fewer headaches
Headaches are another keto flu symptom attributable to low sodium or dehydration. And since people tend to drink enough naturally, it’s usually not dehydration.
To be clear, sodium isn’t the only potential headache cause. Headaches can result from medications, dramatically cutting down on sugar intake, stress, and a long list of other factors.
All I’m saying is that getting enough sodium is low-hanging fruit in a headache prevention program.
#6: Heart health
You can’t talk about cardiovascular health without talking about fluid balance. Fluid balance is what keeps your blood pressure—perhaps the most important marker of heart health—within healthy ranges.
And as I covered earlier, healthy blood pressure means getting adequate potassium AND adequate sodium.
I realize that many confused authorities still rail on sodium as “bad for your heart”. I guess they haven’t read the research (link, link) showing that sodium restriction either 1) doesn’t help heart health outcomes or 2) actually worsens them.
#7: Hormonal health
When you hydrate incorrectly (by drinking plain water, for instance), you’re asking for low sodium levels. Low sodium levels, in turn, create hormonal changes you don’t want.
These changes include:
- Elevated cortisol (a stress hormone that promotes fat storage)
- Elevated norepinephrine and epinephrine (alertness hormones that can cause insomnia)
- Elevated aldosterone (an adrenal hormone that increases blood pressure)
If you want to go twenty thousand leagues under the sea on this topic, read LMNT co-founder Luis Villaseñor’s blog on electrolytes and hormones.
#8: Mood benefits
We have a deep evolutionary craving for sodium. When we don’t get enough salt, it makes us sad, irritable, and listless.
Don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it. Scientists have shown that when rats are deprived of salt, they become depressed.
Another reason to stay salty when you hydrate.
Maintaining Healthy Hydration
To get the benefits of hydration, you need to understand what healthy hydration means.
It’s about maintaining fluid balance. It’s about drinking the right amount of water and consuming electrolytes (especially sodium) along with it.
This can be summarized in a single hydration rule: Drink electrolyte water to thirst.
That’s why I created LMNT: to encourage healthy hydration with an easy, delicious drink mix.
Drink to thirst, eat electrolyte-rich foods, and stay salty. That’s how you stay hydrated.