Do Electrolyte Supplements Actually Do Anything? | Lifehacker

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Electrolyte powders come in all different flavors, mineral concentrations, and sweetener options. They’re sold to athletes, to dieters, and as a hangover cure. But how many of us can actually benefit from taking electrolytes? And how many of the hydration “facts” we hear on social media are actually myths? 

If you’re expecting me to say that electrolytes are useless, that’s not exactly true. I love a cold swig of LMNT when I come home from a sweaty summer run. I appreciate electrolytes’ many functions in the human body. But we have to dissect some of the claims that are popping up on social media as every influencer tries to sell you their favorite brand of electrolytes. Most of them are trying to solve a problem of their own making. 

But more about that in a minute. First, let’s look at what electrolytes really do, and who can benefit.

What are electrolytes? 

Electrolytes are minerals that we get in our diet, and specifically the ones that become charged ions when dissolved in water. Table salt, for example, is sodium chloride. When you mix it into water, it breaks down into a positively-charged sodium ion, and a negatively charged chloride ion. 

(The “electro” in the name comes from the fact that these ions have an electrical charge. If you think of water as a conductor of electricity—like the reason you shouldn’t drop a hair dryer in a bathtub—it actually gets that conductive property from those dissolved minerals. Distilled water does not conduct electricity.)

Our body needs a variety of chemical elements to work, and those include electrolytes. We use sodium and potassium ions to make our nerves fire, and calcium to trigger our muscles to contract, among other functions. And since we can’t make chemical elements from scratch, we need to get them in our diet. When you hear about “vitamins and minerals” as micronutrients, those minerals include electrolytes. These electrolytes include: 

Where do we get electrolytes? 

Forget the supplements for a minute—we normally get electrolytes in our food. Anything with salt in it provides sodium and chloride, for example. Potassium is in plenty of fruits and vegetables—famously bananas and coconut water, but also leafy greens, potatoes, and more.

There are only two minerals where people commonly fall short, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These are calcium and potassium. 

Sodium is also mentioned in the guidelines (and on nutrition labels), but for the opposite reason—too much sodium can be bad for you, especially if you have high blood pressure. That said, people who exercise a lot or sweat a lot may need more sodium than the guidelines indicate—which is where electrolyte supplements come in.

Electrolyte supplements may help athletes who sweat a lot

When we sweat, we lose water and sodium. A 2011 review in the Journal of Sport Sciences points out that athletes can lose four to seven liters of water per day if they’re training hard or in hot weather—that’s eight to 14 standard sized water bottles’ worth. Alongside that, a typical sodium loss may be 3,500 to 7,000 milligrams. 

Compare that to the recommendations for non-athletes: most of us are advised to keep our sodium intake under 2,300 milligrams per day, or under 1,500 if we’ve been advised to keep sodium low to control our blood pressure.

While you may not think of yourself as an “athlete,” it’s not hard to find yourself in a situation where you’re losing a lot of water and sodium—and other electrolytes as a side effect. One way to illustrate this is to weigh yourself before and after going for a run in the summertime. If you don’t pee in the meantime, then any weight loss between the start and end of your run is likely to be water you’ve lost, at least some of it through sweat. If you lose two pounds, for example, that’s about a liter—or two water bottles’ worth. 

The most important electrolyte to replace in this case is sodium. Trying to replenish all those fluids with plain water, without any added sodium, may lead to hyponatremia, a dangerous shortage of sodium in the body. (If you’re replacing electrolytes, you don’t want low-sodium sources. Coconut water has plenty of potassium, and that’s great, but its low sodium content makes it not a great option here.) 

Electrolytes can reduce the harm of fasting or extreme dieting

I’m not going to endorse extended fasts or extreme dieting here, but something you’ll hear from fasting communities online is that supplemental electrolytes are crucial for health if you’re fasting. That’s true. 

If you’re not eating food, you’re missing out on all the usual sources of minerals (including electrolytes) in your diet. While our body can handle going without most vitamins or minerals for at least a few days or weeks, electrolytes are needed more urgently. 

I’m not going to give guidelines here; if you’re eating so little food that you’re in danger of an electrolyte shortage, you should really be getting your information from a medical professional, not a blog on the internet. I will say that, unlike athletes replacing losses from sweat, you need to consider more than just sodium. Please don’t assume that table salt (or Himalayan salt, or salt plus lemon juice) covers all your bases.

Electrolytes probably do nothing for hangovers

You’ve probably heard about using Pedialyte or Gatorade to prevent or “cure” a hangover; some electrolyte supplement companies market products specifically for, as Waterboy puts it, “weekend recovery.” 

But hangovers result from drinking alcohol, not from dehydration or electrolyte deficiency. Cedars-Sinai reports that people with hangovers tend to have the same electrolyte levels as people who are not hung over. 

And, honestly, you could have figured this out yourself. I’ve been dehydrated, and I’ve been hung over. Despite some minor similarities (nausea, headache), they’re entirely different experiences. If you’re dehydrated, a glass of water will fix you right up. If you’re hung over, that bottle of Pedialyte is just there to distract you while you wait for your liver to work through the night’s backlog.

Why everybody on TikTok wants you to take more electrolytes

So if electrolyte supplements are only really useful for athletes and in a few medical applications (like rehydrating people who have suffered a nasty bout of diarrhea), why are they all over your feed? Because they’re supplements, of course. Supplements are some of the most affiliate-marketable things out there: cheap to produce, cheap to ship, and in the case of electrolytes, they can be made into a good-tasting drink. 

The electrolyte boom also builds off the escalating advice to drink more and more water. All the health-conscious girlies carry a gigantic water bottle (or Stanley tumbler, or whatever trend we’ve moved onto) and sip from it all day long. (This is not necessary.) 

Ironically, the marketing pitch I’m seeing most often on TikTok and the like is a response to that. Are you going to the bathroom constantly? Are you peeing almost clear? Maybe you’re “overhydrated.” The solution? Not drinking less, no no. The solution is to follow my link in bio and buy some electrolytes to add to your water. 

Or maybe you’d like a DIY solution. Since lemons have magical health properties (I am kidding, okay?) we add lemon juice and sea salt to our water bottle. Some of the TikTok recipes call for a tiny amount of salt, so little we can’t taste it. That would be about one-tenth of a teaspoon, providing 200 milligrams of sodium in a liter of water, according to World Health Organization data on how much sodium we can usually taste. Other recipes call for a full teaspoon of salt (2,300 milligrams of sodium) in 1 to 1.5 liters of water. 

Either way, salt is not your only electrolyte, and I’m not sure what the lemon is supposed to add, besides flavor. (It doesn’t have any significant amount of the other electrolytes.) 

Some of the videos claim that electrolyte supplementation is necessary if you drink filtered water, but a liter of tap water only contains 2-3% of your daily calcium and magnesium, varying depending on where you get your water from, and less than 1% of other electrolytes. So you aren’t missing out on any significant sources of electrolytes by filtering your water. 

Is it bad to drink a lot of electrolytes? 

If you’re chugging a ton of water, adding electrolytes to some (maybe not all) of your water could be a sensible move. Just pay attention to your total sodium intake, and make sure you’re not getting astronomical levels. 

For example, if you already get 2,500 milligrams from your diet (which you can track with an app like Cronometer), two packets of LMNT will bring you up to 4,500 for the day. If you aren’t doing a ton of sweaty exercise outdoors, that’s probably more than is good for your health. Pay attention to the numbers and use a little common sense.