Thanks to YouTube and podcast sponsorships, electrolytes have gone mainstream.
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Severe dehydration has you walking on a thin line, with Mauro Prosperi’s story being the perfect example. A marathoner who got lost in the Sahara Desert during another 26-miler, only to survive by drinking his own urine for days. Doctors who treated Prosperi reported that “16 bags of intravenous fluids were needed to replace his water loss,” while the damage to his kidneys, liver, and psyche goes unmentioned.
Temperatures continue breaking records, an increasing number of people fall under areas of heat alert, and life outside air-conditioning is becoming miserable. Even having abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, life locked inside doors isn’t an option most have.
As federal agencies, health officials, and celebrities raise awareness for coming with rising heat, one term gets thrown around ever so often — “electrolytes.”
In a nutritional sense, “electrolytes” are minerals that dissolve in body fluids, responsible for “maintaining electrical neutrality in cells and generating and conduction action potentials in the nerves and muscles.” In simpler terms, they recharge your body.
The idea behind taking an electrolyte supplement is simple: you replenish the minerals you lose through water losses. The science, however, is scarce — most benefits being anecdotal or part of an endorsement.
Marathoners regularly report dehydration, cramping, dizziness, passing out, or vomiting — all hallmarks of dehydration. On average, they complete a race with 3 to 4 percent dehydration.
The short answer: No, most people don’t need electrolyte supplements — at least not every day. The Western diet is largely accommodating of most electrolytes, and people often over-diagnose dehydration.
On the other hand, athletes do benefit from taking electrolytes — helpful in recovery and sustained training load, especially under hot weather.
Overhydration is also a concern, especially for athletes typically encouraged to “drink plenty of fluids.”
While sipping on a sports drink isn’t unhealthy per se, there are alternatives as well. Coconut water is always a great source of potassium. Sports drinks can help, but they do come with additional calories and some amounts of sugar.