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It's common for people to reach for an electrolyte drink when they're feeling the symptoms of dehydration.
But there's a lot of confusion around electrolytes and hydration. Do electrolytes actually hydrate you faster than plain water? and if so, how?
In this article, we take a closer look at understanding the relationship between hydration and electrolytes and clear up any myths or misconceptions surrounding it.
What are Electrolytes?
Most people know that electrolytes are important for hydration but may not know exactly what they are. Electrolytes are minerals that dissolve in water and create electrically charged particles. These particles are important for many functions in the body, including muscle contraction, heart function, and fluid balance.
The main electrolytes that are found in the body include
The amount of electrolytes that are circulating in the body is kept under tight control. Various organs including the kidneys make sure that the level of electrolytes is kept in check. That's because a rise or fall in electrolyte levels can have a profound impact on bodily functions.
Luckily, it's not something we need to think or worry about because most of us get all the electrolytes we need from the food and drink we consume.
In fact, most of us will never need to take supplements to get more electrolytes. Our body has an incredible ability to keep electrolyte levels in a narrow range. This is especially the case for sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate.
On the other hand, calcium and magnesium deficiency is relatively common and people can become deficient because of a lack of dietary intake.
Electrolytes and hydration - what's the link?
There's a lot of confusion about electrolytes and hydration. Do electrolytes actually hydrate you? What happens if you have too many or not enough?
The important thing to appreciate is that electrolytes do not directly hydrate you.
However, certain electrolytes can indirectly support faster hydration.
Let us explain this further...
When the electrolyte sodium is present with glucose (sugar) in your gastrointestinal tract, it activates the sodium-glucose cotransporter. This is a channel that sits on the cell surface that acts like a gate to allow glucose and sodium to flow into the bloodstream.
You're probably asking, but what does this have to do with water and hydration?
Well, when the level of sodium and glucose rises in the bloodstream, it increases the osmolarity of blood. In simple terms, it means the concentration of electrolytes is greater in the blood than in the intestinal tract.
When this happens, water naturally flows into the bloodstream to balance things out. This passing of water from one compartment to another is known as osmosis. And that's how electrolytes can indirectly support faster hydration.
Hydrating faster with an oral rehydration solution
The important thing to appreciate is that you need a specific ratio of sodium and glucose to activate the sodium-glucose cotransporter.
The world health organization (WHO) have a formula they recommend called the "oral rehydration solution (ORS) ".
It's based on the premise that a certain concentration of sodium and glucose mixed with water will activate the sodium-glucose cotransporter to support rapid hydration.
This formula was designed as a cheap and effective way to hydrate people with diarrheal illnesses where dehydration is a cause of death if left untreated. For example, during cholera outbreaks in Africa.(1)
But the principles of an oral rehydration solution remain the same regardless of the reason for hydration. Whether it's for hydration related to sports, travel or illness, oral rehydration solutions are designed to hydrate you faster than water alone.
What to look for in an electrolyte drink for hydration
Nowadays, there are loads of products on the market that utilize the science of oral rehydration solutions to produce drinks and supplements that are designed to hydrate you faster.
But with so many options, how can you tell what's the best electrolyte mix for hydration?
This is the key electrolyte needed in an ORS. Without a relatively high level of sodium, the sodium-glucose transporter won't get activated.
Sodium rightfully has a lot of bad press because too much of it, over a long period of time, can lead to high blood pressure and other negative health problems.
But it's an essential electrolyte to have in a rehydration mix. So long as you have a healthy diet that's not too salt heavy and use ORS for hydration purposes only, it shouldn't cause a problem.
An ORS, must have glucose (sugar) in it.
There are lots of products that market a "sugar-free" electrolyte drink for hydration. But this means the drink is not following the principles of an oral rehydration solution.
Aside from this, lots of hydration products contain an assortment of other electrolytes including potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Now, these electrolytes are not essential for hydration but are nevertheless helpful in supporting healthy muscle and nerve function.
What is the best way to get electrolytes for hydration
There are lots of products that follow the principles of an oral rehydration solution. You can either buy them in a pre-mixed drink or from powdered mixes that require you to add water.
1) Powder electrolyte mix
Products like our very own omre HYDRATE contain the ideal mix of electrolytes and sugar to support fast hydration. They come in travel-friendly sachets which you tear open and mix with water.
The good thing about powder electrolyte mixes is that you can add more or less water depending on your taste preference.
2) Pre-mixed electrolyte drink
The best-known example is Pedialyte. This drink was originally designed for unwell children with hydration needs during bouts of illness. But nowadays they sell Pedialyte for adults and for all hydration needs.
3) Effervescent tablets
These are tablets you drop in water that fizz up and dissolve to release electrolytes in water. It's similar to an electrolyte powder mix but with some added ingredients so that it holds its shape and bubbles up in water.
Because of those added ingredients, it can alter the taste slightly which may not be to everyone's liking.
4) Sports drinks
Although sports drinks are sometimes marketed as hydration aids, they aren't necessarily the best option.
Sports drinks aren't designed as "oral rehydration solutions". Naturally, they prioritize taste which means they can contain a huge amount of sugar and thus calories compared to the options mentioned above.
In addition, they don't usually contain enough sodium required to activate the sodium-glucose cotransporter.
Do electrolytes hydrate you - Final words
That brings us to the end of our look into electrolytes and hydration.
To summarise, electrolytes do not "hydrate you".
Rather the electrolyte sodium, in the presence of glucose, activates the sodium-glucose cotransporter which indirectly pushes more water into your bloodstream.
To achieve this, you need to take a certain ratio of electrolytes which you can obtain through various specially designed supplements and drinks.