The question of whether or not electrolytes hydrate you is a loaded one. The short answer is that, no, electrolytes do not hydrate you, not directly. However, their mechanism of action does lead to enhanced and rapid hydration.
Confused? Don’t worry, I am going to break down how electrolytes impact our body, the role they play, and how they increase hydration but aren’t responsible for hydrating you.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that travel in your blood and help regulate and control the balance of fluid in your body. Besides balancing fluids, though, these minerals also play essential roles in muscle contraction, regulating blood pressure, and keeping your body functioning properly.
The three most common electrolytes are: (1)
How Electrolytes Work
The electrolytes potassium and sodium maximize fluid absorption through their concentrations in the intracellular fluid and extracellular fluid, which is the fluid inside and outside a cell. Their concentrations help to maintain ideal osmotic pressure, which helps cells take in the correct amount of water.
Sodium also aids hydration through sodium-glucose cotransporters (SGCTs), which are located in the intestinal cells. Cotransporters are carrier proteins that help move substances across membranes, essentially acting as a gate that only certain compounds can get through.
SGCTs pair sodium and glucose transport in the small intestine, and when sodium and glucose are transported across the membrane, water is brought along, enhancing the rapid absorption of water.(2) However, for an SGCT to work, both glucose and sodium need to be present.
Because of this, electrolyte mixes must contain both glucose (sugar) and sodium to effectively increase hydration.
Your body relies heavily on the correct balance of fluids. So, if you lose more electrolytes than you take in, your body is unable to maintain a good balance of fluids, affecting your physical performance and overall well-being.
Some things that can increase electrolyte depletion include:
- intense exercise
Besides a loss in electrolytes, the above situations can also cause you to lose fluids, making dehydration much more likely.
Signs You Are Dehydrated
The number one sign of dehydration is feeling thirsty. So, by the time you are wishing for something to drink, your body is already suffering from dehydration.
Dehydration occurs when you lose more fluid than you take in. Because of how vital water is in the body for carrying out routine functions in the digestive system, lubricating joints, oxygen delivery, balancing the body’s chemicals, and regulating body temperature, dehydration can negatively impact these areas.
This can make you feel unwell while also potentially causing muscle spasms or cramping.
Some of the symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mouth
- less frequent urination
- dark-colored urine
The Dangers of Dehydration
Dehydration can lead to some serious complications. (3) One of these is heat injury, which can range from mild heat cramps to heat exhaustion or heatstroke, the latter of which is potentially life-threatening. Heat injuries can occur if you don’t drink enough when exercising vigorously or sweating a lot.
Urinary and kidney problems such as UTIs, kidney stones, or kidney failure can also occur for those who suffer from prolonged or repeated dehydration.
Electrolytes such as sodium and potassium help to carry electrical signals between cells. However, dehydration can cause electrolytes to become out of balance, which can affect these electrical messages and potentially cause seizures.
Electrolytes For Dehydration
While electrolytes do not hydrate the body, they do enhance the body’s ability to take in water through their induction of SGCTs.
Because of this, electrolytes are often a beneficial addition to make fluid intake more effective and hydrate the body further. They are especially helpful for those in situations that deplete electrolytes, such as those in hot weather or completing high-intensity activities where sweating occurs, as sweating removes electrolytes (especially sodium) from the body.
By taking in electrolytes through an oral rehydration solution, you can ensure that your body has enough of the compounds it needs to absorb and balance water.
Choosing An Oral Rehydration Solution
Now that we know the importance of electrolytes for hydrating the body and keeping the body functioning at an optimal level, it is time to consider the best oral rehydration solution for you.
The market possesses many types of electrolyte mixes, but not all of them are created equal. In fact, some market themselves as hydration mixes but don’t contain the ingredients needed to do this.
Yes, Or No, To Sugar?
Sugar is a common ingredient infused into many of the foods and beverages in our society, and its overconsumption can have detrimental effects on our health. However, that does not mean that sugar should entirely be avoided, as it still plays an important role in our bodies. The key is finding a good balance.
Sports drinks are often the first consideration for obtaining electrolytes; however, many of these drinks prioritize taste and an energy boost through a high sugar content. While these high sugar contents help boost energy when doing something physically straining, it is not healthy to rely on these drinks continually for regular hydration.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are hydration mixes that market themselves as sugar-free, replacing sugar with something such as stevia to maintain a good taste. However, the lack of sugar actually makes these hydration mixes no more effective than plain water.
As a reminder, electrolytes help with hydration by setting off sodium-glucose cotransporters, and these cotransporters only work if they have both sodium and glucose, or sugar. So, these products that promote sugar-free hydration may provide electrolytes, but without glucose the SCGT will not be activated, and rapid water absorption will not occur.
The best hydration mix will fall somewhere between these two extremes. They will contain sugar (to activate the SGCTs), but they will not have a sugar content as high as sports drinks, which helps to prevent the health effects of too much sugar.
There are many forms of these oral rehydration solutions, including hydration mixes, powders, or effervescent tabs that are added to a certain amount of water. There are also pre-made drinks that already contain a specific ratio of electrolytes.
To see the best results, it is important to choose a form that works best for you and that will be the easiest for you to include in your day.
When Are Electrolytes Needed?
For everyday situations, it is often okay to let thirst be your guide for when to hydrate. However, there are certain situations where you may need to be more proactive in your hydration, and when you may also need to supplement with electrolytes to keep your body running smoothly.
Vomiting or Diarrhea
If you are ill and experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, drinking extra water or an oral rehydration solution is essential as soon as the illness starts. Vomiting and diarrhea dramatically increase the risk of dehydration, so it is important to remain hydrated as the illness works its way out of your body.
Not only does staying hydrated help your body function normally, but it also plays a vital role in the function of the immune system, which helps to clear out the infection. So, by drinking fluids, you are helping your body build a stronger defense system.
Hot or Cold Weather
When the weather becomes hot and humid, our body temperature rises, which leads to additional sweating. When you sweat, you lose not only water but also electrolytes. Because of this, it is important to replenish both fluids and electrolytes when the temperature outside rises.
However, while hot weather is associated with increased sweating, dehydration can also occur at the other extreme. When the weather becomes cold, and the air becomes dry, your body can experience moisture loss, which often manifests as dry skin. To combat this, be sure to keep up your hydration levels when the winter temperature sets in.
When exercising at a high intensity, the amount of sweat your body produces increases, which leads to a decline in fluid and electrolytes. While it is important to rehydrate when exercising, it is also best practice to start hydrating the day before any high-intensity activities so that your body begins in a prime position.
Electrolytes are often considered for their ability to hydrate the body, but that is not necessarily a role they hold. Instead, electrolytes are minerals that help the body absorb water more rapidly, increasing hydration. While water is what hydrates the body, electrolytes help increase hydration.
In addition to balancing fluid levels in the body, electrolytes also play an essential role in regulating blood pressure and muscle contractions, which is why having low levels of electrolytes can impact how well the body can function.
Dehydration is a dangerous situation where the body does not have enough fluid to complete its tasks optimally. Electrolytes can help to combat dehydration through their activation of sodium glucose cotransporters, but this requires both sodium and glucose (sugar).
When it comes to obtaining the correct amount of electrolytes, it is important to find a rehydration electrolyte mix that contain the ideal ratio of electrolytes and sugar to help your body increase hydration and function optimally.
Terry J. (1994). The major electrolytes: sodium, potassium, and chloride. Journal of intravenous nursing : the official publication of the Intravenous Nurses Society, 17(5), 240–247.
Buccigrossi, V., Lo Vecchio, A., Bruzzese, E., Russo, C., Marano, A., & Terranova, S. et al. (2020). Potency of Oral Rehydration Solution in Inducing Fluid Absorption is Related to Glucose Concentration. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-64818-3
Taylor K, Jones EB. Adult Dehydration. [Updated 2022 May 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555956/