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How Do Electrolyte Drinks Work to Hydrate You?

If you’ve seen an ad or label for a sports drink, you’ve seen reference to electrolytes and their benefits. But what are electrolytes? The term covers a surprisingly broad range of substances, as any chemical that conducts electricity when dissolved in water is an electrolyte. The water that makes up most of our body weight is full of electrolytes that are necessary for basic life functions. Muscles, organs, and nerve cells rely on the constant movement of electrolytes in and out of cells to signal bodily processes and adjust fluid levels for better functioning.

Electrolytes include many elements you’re familiar with.

  • Bicarbonate balances blood acidity and moves carbon dioxide through your system
  • Calcium aids in nervous system messaging and helps stabilize blood pressure
  • Chloride helps regulate blood pressure and other bodily fluids
  • Magnesium assists in nerve and muscle functioning, as well as bone tissue growth
  • Phosphate supports the skeletal system and aids in nerve and muscle functioning
  • Potassium helps metabolize nutrients and clear out waste, as well as supporting heart, nerve, and muscle functions
  • Sodium balances fluid levels and helps nerve and muscle functions

Electrolyte Imbalances

Electrolyte levels in the body can become too high or low. For example, important electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium, are lost while sweating from intense activity and hot environments. When this happens, a host of physical symptoms can result.

  • Muscle cramps, spasms, and weakness
  • Tingling and numbness
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Confusion or irritability
  • Heart palpitations or arrhythmia
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bowel or urinary issues

Severe and even fatal symptoms can result from massive electrolyte imbalances, such as respiratory failure, seizures, coma, or heart failure. It’s imperative that anyone doing intense physical work, especially in hot conditions, maintain healthy levels of electrolytes.

Electrolyte Drinks

This is where beverages with electrolytes, such as sports drinks and electrolyte water, come in. These drinks have added electrolytes that most commonly include sodium, potassium, and chloride, and they’re increasingly common at work as well as during athletics.

How do these drinks help your body during hot or intense working conditions? The most obvious answer is that they rehydrate you, replacing lost fluids. They’re designed to replace these fluids quickly, preventing symptoms of dehydration or stopping them before they reach dangerous extremes.

The electrolyte content of these drinks is crucial, as they contain higher concentrations of necessary minerals than water typically does. Consuming these helps to control fluid balance, regulate blood pressure, and assist muscle contraction, including your heart. This allows blood to deliver oxygen throughout your body, improving muscle and organ functioning and preventing sudden fatigue.

You may be wondering about sugar content in many of these drinks, but sugar helps increase water absorption, speeding hydration. Drinks with carbohydrates like sugar also help to replenish glycogen, the storage form of glucose. If you’re familiar with the phenomenon of “hitting the wall” during long stretches of endurance exercise, this is a sudden onset of fatigue that accompanies loss of glycogen.

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