If you’re limiting sugar, your options for electrolyte drinks are limited. You’re mostly just looking at sports drinks with enough sugar to satisfy a six-year old on Halloween.
Most people are at least somewhat aware that sugary beverages aren’t the best electrolyte drink. But they drink them anyway. I have to get my electrolytes somehow, right? Yet, if you read the ingredients label, you don’t find a whole lot of electrolytes.
You never find more than a couple hundred milligrams of sodium. And that doesn’t even begin to address the questions of potassium or magnesium.
A couple hundred milligrams of sodium is almost negligible when you look at the data. Athletes can lose up to 7 grams of sodium per day when exercising in warm climates.
The worst part is the liquid sugar though. These electrolyte drinks have tons of it, and they’re making Americans fat, sick, and metabolically inflexible.
Oral rehydration solutions contain sugar too, usually as glucose instead of high fructose corn syrup. These concoctions are great for replacing lost fluids and electrolytes, but the meme that you need sugar for everyday hydration just isn’t true. I’ll geek out on this later.
I’ll also geek out on the problems with sugar and store-bought electrolyte drinks. Then I’ll show you how to make your own. (Don’t worry, it’s easy).
First, though, let’s talk about hydration at the most basic level.
What Is Hydration?
I define hydration differently than most people. Most people think that hydration is all about drinking water. But when you look at the science, it’s actually about optimal fluid balance in the body.
According to the dictionary, both definitions are correct. But the fluid balance paradigm is way more useful for staying healthy and feeling good.
What is optimal fluid balance? It’s having the perfect amount of water to keep your blood flowing, your skin moist, and your brain suspended in your cranium.
By weight, we’re made mostly of H2O. It’s important to partition it properly.
For a person with healthy kidneys, fluid balancing happens fairly automatically. For instance, if you drink too much water, antidiuretic hormone gets suppressed and you pee out the excess.
And if you don’t drink enough water, osmoreceptors in your brain will sense that. Then you’ll get thirsty, drink something, and the system will be balanced again.
Yet, water isn’t the only input that affects this system. That’s where electrolytes come in.
What Do Electrolytes Do?
Electrolytes are charged minerals with many functions in the human body including:
- Conducting electricity to enable cellular communication
- Regulating heartbeat
- Mediating the activity of many hormones
- Modulating inflammation
- Regulating fluid balance (blood pressure, etc.)
Let’s double click on the last bullet. It’s the most germane to hydration.
Of the electrolytes gang, sodium and potassium are the primary fluid balance regulators. Sodium regulates extracellular fluid balance (fluid outside cells) and potassium regulates intracellular fluid balance (fluid inside cells).
Sodium and potassium come in through diet, supplements, and electrolyte drinks—and go out through sweat, urine, and feces. If what goes out consistently exceeds what comes in, you’ll develop a nutritional deficiency and fluid balance will be suboptimal.
The consequences of sodium and potassium deficiencies include:
- Low energy
- Muscle cramps
- Brain fog
Severe cases of low sodium (called hyponatremia) can lead to seizures, brain damage, or death. Hyponatremia is usually due to excess consumption of sodium-free water, a common practice among elite endurance athletes. When athletes rehydrate with salty water, the hyponatremia is reversed.
Yet even mild cases of low sodium can cause a low-energy malaise. This is common in keto folks (known as “keto flu”) since a low-carb diet provokes increased sodium loss through urine. Sodium is also lost through sweat.
Low serum potassium (hypokalemia), on the other hand, usually results from potassium loss through diarrhea or vomiting.
The takeaway is that an everyday electrolyte drink should focus on sodium first and potassium second.
But there’s talk of sugar being useful for electrolyte absorption. Should an everyday electrolyte drink contain sugar too?
Do You Need Sugar To Hydrate?
No, you don’t need sugar to hydrate. But glucose can accelerate electrolyte absorption. I’ll explain how this works, then I’ll explain why sugar isn’t essential for most hydration situations.
Sodium and glucose share a couple of transporters—SGLT1 and SGLT2—in the small intestine. These transporters help deliver sodium, glucose, and fluids through the gut and into the bloodstream.
All things equal, adding glucose to a hydration solution will increase net absorption of sodium and fluids. This is the basis for oral rehydration therapy (ORT)—a protocol used in hospitals to rehydrate patients with infectious diarrhea and other maladies. ORT was super helpful to combat the cholera epidemics of decades past.
ORT works. That’s undeniable. But do you need the sugar? Consider the following:
- Besides glucose, many other compounds (ketones, amino acids, butyrate, and phosphorus) co-transport sodium across the gut.
- Sodium can diffuse through the gut without a co-transporter.
- A saltwater solution effectively reversed hyponatremia in distance athletes. No glucose required.
The final point is against the sugar itself. A little glucose won’t kill you, but consuming too much sugar has consequences.
The Problem With Sugary Drinks
The average American consumes a whopping 17% of their calories from added sugar. This approaches 20 teaspoons of sugar on a 2000 calorie diet.
The majority of this sugar comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. Many electrolyte drinks—like Gatorade, Powerade, and anything else colored iridescent blue—fall into this category.
The consequences of excess sugar consumption are beyond the scope of this article. (I wrote a full blog on how sugar is making us sick). But consider this partial list of chronic diseases linked to higher sugar intakes.
Chronic diseases linked to sugar consumption:
- Heart disease. For each sugary beverage consumed daily, a person’s risk of heart disease goes up by 10-20%.
- Type 2 Diabetes. In over 90,000 women, drinking more than one sugary beverage per day (vs. one per week) translated to an 83% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Cancer. High blood sugar from high sugar consumption fuels cancer via the Warburg Effect. (Warburg discovered that cancer cells love glucose). Mice fed the equivalent of one sugary beverage per day developed more colon cancer than control mice.
- Kidney disease. When healthy adults consumed 2 liters of soda after exercise, they showed markers of kidney injury.
- It doesn’t stop there. Sugar drives the obesity epidemic. Higher sugar intakes are linked to higher rates of cognitive decline. Sugar exacerbates gut issues. The list goes on, but you get the point. Besides, sugar isn’t the only problem with most electrolyte drinks.
Store-Bought Electrolyte Drinks: Pros and Cons
Let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of electrolyte drinks now.
#1: Sports Drinks
There are three big problems with sports drinks:
- They contain loads of sugar
- They contain minimal electrolytes (like sodium)
- They contain artificial ingredients you don’t want
Aside from the momentary taste-bud pleasure, there’s nothing positive about them. Steer clear, folks.
#2: Oral rehydration solutions
Oral rehydration solutions like Pedialyte are useful for replacing fluids and electrolytes in critical situations. If your kid is sick, Pedialyte may be useful medicine.
Of course, these solutions do contain sugar. And if you’re restricting sugar on a low-carb or keto diet, even 6 grams of sugar is significant.
They also contain artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners with unknown effects on human health. They aren’t an everyday hydration option.
#3: Electrolyte water and mineral water
Can’t you just get electrolytes from sparkling mineral water or smartly-packaged “electrolyte water”? Unfortunately, that’s a losing strategy.
Mineral waters have a bit of calcium but are generally low in sodium and potassium. Enjoy them in good health, but don’t count on them for electrolytes.
And much of the time, store-bought electrolyte water isn’t actually electrolyte water. It’s just plain water with a mere dusting of minerals for taste. Don’t be fooled by this sort of language, check the ingredients.
#4: Coconut water
Oscar Wilde once said that “everything popular is wrong”. He was probably exaggerating, but he wasn’t entirely wrong about the uber-popular coconut water.
Coconut water is a good source of potassium, but it’s weak on the sodium side of things. And low-carbers, beware: even coconut water with no sugar added provides a significant sugar hit.
How To Make Your Own Sugar-Free Electrolyte Drink
There are two ways to get adequate electrolytes through a sugar-free electrolyte drink:
- The easy way
- The very easy way
The easy way involves mixing water, salt, potassium, and magnesium, with a squeeze of lemon or lime. It’s what we call an electrolyte homebrew.
You're shooting for a noticeably salty taste. Not like seawater, mind you, but you should taste that salt like you might taste it in a margarita, or even a bit stronger.
In total, shoot for 5 grams of sodium per day. (That’s about 12.5 grams, or 2.5 teaspoons, of salt). You may need to increase this if you’re losing lots of sodium through sweat.
Five grams of sodium sounds like a lot, I know. Isn’t all that sodium bad for your heart? Not according to a 2011 JAMA study. In that study, researchers found 5 grams of sodium per day to be best for heart health outcomes. Most people need more salt, not less.
The even easier way is to use a zero sugar electrolyte drink mix like Drink LMNT. It contains enough sodium to make a difference, plus it tastes better than what you can throw together at home.
Yes, I’m biased on this topic. I co-founded LMNT with my coaches, Tyler and Luis. It’s our product. But we made it so that folks (including us) could have a delicious electrolyte drink on-demand without the sugar hit.
Anyway, whether you use LMNT or mix a DIY homebrew, you’re going to save yourself a fruitless trip to the store. And you’ll be hydrating better in the process. Not a bad deal, right?