Are Electrolytes The Answer To Better Hydration?

Photo by Renzo Navarro

Interest in electrolytes is booming. The global electrolyte mixes market has exploded from $36.56 billion in 2023 to $40.32 billion in 2024, according to new research. That 10.3 per cent increase may be partly a reflection of an increasingly health-conscious population, but TikTok – where every wellness content creator worth their salt starts their day with an electrolyte boost – may have something to do with it, too.

In case you’re not familiar with the latest wellbeing must-have, electrolytes are minerals with an electrical charge that regulate essential chemical reactions in the body, like pH balance and nerve and muscle contraction. They also help maintain the balance of fluids inside and outside of cells, so can help keep your body optimally hydrated. Although we lose electrolytes daily through excretion of sweat and urine, most of what we need comes from a healthy, balanced diet. If, however, your diet isn’t up to scratch, you work out a lot or you struggle to consume your daily quota of water, electrolytes might be a good support. Here’s what you need to know.

Electrolytes are about more than just salts

Given the range of minerals that qualify as electrolytes, the benefits are naturally varied. “Sodium is the electrolyte that most people know of, but magnesium, potassium and calcium are other primary electrolytes,” explains Rhian Stephenson, founder of Artah, whose own electrolyte powder, Cellular Hydration, is a bestseller. “If you think of how important magnesium is alone for mood, stress, sleep and metabolism, you can start to see how important maintaining good electrolyte balance is.” Similar to magnesium, calcium – another electrolyte – is vital for nerve and muscle function, and for building and maintaining strong teeth and bones. Potassium, meanwhile, is essential for moving nutrients around the body and helping it dispose of unwanted waste.

They can enhance your exercise regime

Traditionally a go-to supplement for athletes, you don’t have to be a long-distance runner or a professional bodybuilder to benefit from electrolytes – anyone who works out can reap the rewards. “They can help vastly improve hydration, particularly when used during intense physical activity,” says nutritionist Riya Lakhani-Kanji. “Moreover, they support muscle function and can increase endurance, so maintaining a consistent electrolyte balance can also help you avoid dehydration during periods of excessive sweating or in hot climates.” As well as enabling proper muscle contractions (which means less cramping), a lack of electrolytes can also affect your ability to build muscle, so getting the right balance is important.

Add them to your anti-stress arsenal

Even if your workout schedule doesn’t qualify you, there are other conditions and lifestyle factors that could mean you are in need of additional support. If you’re following a keto diet that’s low in carbs but high in fat, your body will produce ketones to burn fat for energy instead of glucose, a process that leads to loss of water and consequently electrolytes. “Chronic stress and anxiety deplete potassium (as does excess caffeine), and dietary surveys consistently show that women in particular aren’t hitting the RDA for potassium,” adds Stephenson. “Potassium is essential for nervous system function, cognitive health, mood, stress, and in combination with magnesium – also chronically low in our diets – can help contribute to a calmer, more stable mood.” She goes on to note that breastfeeding can also increase electrolyte requirements – although it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before introducing any supplements to your routine.

Take a balanced approach

If you find drinking regular water a chore, it can be tempting to swap it out for something more interesting. But, if you do start using electrolytes, don’t forget about plain old water altogether. While there’s evidence to suggest electrolytes are good for rehydrating after bouts of illness, intensive exercise or in very hot temperatures, for most people most of the time, plain water is a good choice for hydration. In other words, taking electrolytes is less of a necessity, more of a choice. “The frequency and amount of electrolytes you should consume depends significantly on your physical activity level and personal health,” says Lakhani-Kanji. “However, for most people, it is safe to use electrolyte sachets daily, particularly when engaging in rigorous workouts or activities that cause heavy sweating.”

Look at your diet

If you’re still unsure about whether electrolytes should play a part in your daily regime, as with any kind of non-food supplement, it’s important to look at what you’re getting from your diet first and whether you can increase your electrolyte quota that way. Potassium rich foods include leafy greens, salmon, white beans and avocado, while spinach, pumpkin seeds, tofu and oats are all good sources of magnesium. That said, it’s important to note that even wholefood sources of certain minerals might not necessarily be enough. “Our basic requirements for electrolytes are quite high,” explains Stephenson. “ A banana is touted as being a potassium superfood, but we only get about 11% of our RDA from one banana, so there’s a way to go when it comes to intake. If you’re following a low carbohydrate diet, electrolytes can be particularly beneficial for energy.

Practise caution

While electrolytes can be a useful addition to your wellbeing regime, don’t the glossiness of social media cloud sensible judgement. Instead approach them with the same caution as anything else you put into your body. “Too many electrolytes can be as harmful as too few, so moderation and balance are key,” says Lakhani-Kanji, while Stephenson has a word of warning about the issue of excess sodium. “Hardcore endurance athletes can be more liberal when it comes to electrolyte drinks that are high in sodium, but the average individual doesn’t need more sodium, especially if their diet is high in ultra-processed foods,” she points out. The same caveat also applies to anyone with certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease or anything that affects the body’s ability to balance minerals properly. As well as being wary of too much sodium, sugar should also be approached with caution – especially if you opt for sports drinks that masquerade as electrolyte substitutions. “It’s important to disconnect sports drinks from electrolytes,” says Stephenson. “Yes, sports drinks contain electrolytes, but the average large bottle of name-brand sports drink can also pack in 36 grams of sugar, so this would not be a healthful addition to your routine.”

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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