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Do electrolyte products really work?

Last Modified: July 03, 2021

Sports & Exercise, Nutrition & Recipes


Any physical activity can make a person sweat, especially during the warm summer months. This is why it’s important to remember that when we perspire, we lose water and essential nutrients called electrolytes. And, while these powerhouse minerals are in the foods we eat, they are also in electrolyte supplements and products like drinks, powders, tablets and more. To explore this subject further, we asked Sami Kauffman, MA, RD, CSSD, LD, sports dietitian, Parkview Sports Medicine, to discuss what electrolytes are, their function within the body and if supplementation is really necessary. 

What are electrolytes? 

Electrolytes are minerals found in our food that play a role in conducting nerve impulses, muscle contraction, hydration and regulation of the body’s pH level. Some common electrolytes you may be familiar with include:

  • Sodium 
  • Chloride 
  • Potassium 
  • Magnesium 
  • Calcium
  • Phosphate
  • Bicarbonate 

Each one plays a different role within the body. For example, sodium helps maintain our cells’ fluid volume, while potassium helps nerve function and muscle contraction.

How do electrolytes work, and what benefits do they provide?

Electrolytes conduct electricity when mixed with water. Our muscles and neurons rely on the movement of electrolytes through the fluid inside, outside or between cells. When we have the proper amount of electrolytes in our body, they can do numerous things like maximizing athletic performance by ensuring adequate hydration and preventing muscle cramps. Additionally, electrolytes also help rehydrate us when sick, prevent heat stroke and aid in the proper contraction of our heart and lungs. 

Why are electrolytes important for athletes? 

Water is fabulous (and essential!) but doesn't have a mechanism for retaining itself. This is where electrolytes come in. They provide a means to retain fluid, therefore helping us stay hydrated. For some athletes, electrolytes can help effectively prevent cramping. 

What are electrolyte tabs and powders designed to do?  

Electrolyte supplements like powders and tablets help the body retain fluid when under-hydrated, playing in a hot or cold environment or when ill. They also help fill any gaps in electrolytes consumption to allow for proper hydration and cramp prevention.

Electrolyte supplementation may be helpful for individuals who:

  • are sick 
  • have not maintained proper hydration during the day 
  • are playing in a hot or frigid environments 
  • eat a very low sodium diet 
  • are playing a sport or exercising for an extended period (more than 1.5 hours)'
  • or are salty or heavy sweaters 

While electrolyte tabs and powders can be beneficial, they aren’t necessary for athletes who eat a balanced diet, which often provides all the minerals and nutrients they need. As a sports dietitian, I specialize in working with athletes to create nutrition plans that help them reach their goals. So, if you have questions, need one-on-one nutritional consultation, meal and hydration planning and more, please feel free to contact me.

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