Electrolyte hydration drinks are big business. The market is valued at $1.5 billion per year and growing due to increased awareness about health and fitness, along with a desire to avoid carbonated beverages. But before you gulp down a Gatorade or Emergen-C, let’s discuss what electrolytes are, whether you need to supplement them and potential negative side effects of these products.

Electrolytes are minerals the body uses to conduct electrical charges, which are necessary for nerve conduction and muscle contraction. They also help maintain the blood’s pH balance. Sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and bicarbonate are electrolytes. Sodium and potassium are especially important for initiating nerve impulses. Calcium is needed for muscle contraction and magnesium for muscle relaxation.

During the summer, people often turn to electrolyte drinks to replace the minerals lost through sweating. Sodium is the primary mineral in perspiration. One large study found that 99.4 percent of Americans consumed more than the recommended amount of sodium (1,500 mg) in their diets each day, and concluded that, for the average person, salt in food is adequate to compensate for losses during physical activity. Light to moderate activity such as walking or jogging for one hour or lifting weights in the gym are unlikely to cause electrolyte imbalances, but you should certainly drink water during your workout.

Electrolyte beverages can benefit people who don’t like to drink water, preferring the taste of flavored drinks. If you have trouble drinking 2 liters of water per day, go ahead and add a beverage with flavoring to increase your fluid consumption. Also, if you’re fatigued while exercising, a beverage or gel with glucose or dextrose can help you perform better. This is not due to the mineral content of the product, but to the carbohydrates providing energy to depleted muscles.

A minor electrolyte imbalance is unlikely to cause symptoms. A more severe imbalance, which can be caused by exercising strenuously for over two hours, second and third degree burns, or prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, can result in fatigue, muscle weakness and cramping, headaches, confusion and convulsions. All of these conditions should be evaluated by a health care professional.

While most people are worried about losing too many minerals, it is possible for the body to retain too many electrolytes in the presence of kidney disease, congestive heart failure, cancer treatment, or certain medications. Too much sodium, a condition called hypernatremia, results in thirst, muscle twitches and possibly seizures. Too much magnesium can cause low blood pressure and heart rate, difficulty breathing and muscle flaccidity. The wrong amount of potassium can lead to irregular heartbeat.

In light of this, it’s best to consume the appropriate amount of water each day and eat a diet high in fruit and vegetables, which is where you’ll obtain most of your minerals. Avoid strenuous exercise on extremely hot days, and treat any underlying illness which could lead to an electrolyte imbalance. 

Dr. Jessica Needle is a licensed naturopathic doctor with Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 568.2598. 

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