Electrolytes are charged metallic “ions” that help balance fluid pressure inside our cells and control the pH of our blood. Normal nerve, heart and muscle function rely on adequate amounts of these minerals, and deficiencies can hamper performance dramatically. Water is consumed per kilogram of body weight more than any other item in the diet, making it a major source of minerals. However, plain water does not supply enough of these minerals anymore.
In the past, our water would come down from the mountains, collect minerals from the rocks, become activated through movement and was free of pollutants. Today, our water needs to be purified, distilled and treated which can diminish or completely eliminate the mineral content and can lead to an electrolyte imbalance. To top it off, much of the water has become fluoridated, which binds to magnesium and sets you up for fatigue, muscle cramps, and spasms. In fact, the root cause of muscle cramps is usually from a lack of electrolytes, especially magnesium and potassium.
During our early days of agriculture, fermented drinks fit the bill more than water to maintain energy and hydration all day. These provided ionic minerals to the body, supplying the muscles with the much needed electricity to function. Today, research has allowed us to design drinks to address the precise needs of the body during physiological, emotional and psychological stress to allow us to push beyond what is considered humanly possible.
If you are really serious about performance, consider nutrigenomic testing through Nutrition Genome to analyze your genes for VO2 max, muscle injury risk, muscle recovery, muscle strength, higher needs for minerals like potassium and magnesium, and a lot more for overall health. I also recommend reading the article Adaptogens: The Secret Weapon for Athletes and if you are male, How to Increase Testosterone Naturally.
Best Electrolyte Drinks
Enhanced Electrolytes by Total Hydration was just launched in March 2018. There are a few reasons that this product has taken the new top ranking. First, it has a higher magnesium (65mg magnesium malate) and potassium content (100mg) than other similar competitor products, reducing the incidence of muscle cramps while also increasing energy levels. The B6 addition as P-5-P (like magnesium, many people are low in B6) provides excellent synergy with magnesium and balances sodium and potassium ratios. Second, the bicarbonate forms of sodium and potassium along with Himalayan salt for trace mineral balance is a huge advantage for exercise performance. Research has shown that sodium bicarbonate is the most effective sodium form in improving high-intensity exercise and increasing endurance. Zinc bisglycinate is included that helps offset the higher zinc loss found in athletes (especially important for vegan, vegetarian and female athletes who may have higher copper levels) and helps support testosterone levels, immunity and thyroid health that can be affected by exhaustive exercise.
Enhanced Electrolytes was formulated by a Ph.D. and former triathlete for all types of physical activity, the ketogenic diet, long flights and during illness. I see this product being an ideal fit for high-intensity exercise in the 2-hour or less range that requires both sprints and endurance performance with moderate to heavy sweat loss. Since these are capsules, you want to make sure you drink them with sufficient water.
Saltstick was created by a triathlete and organic chemist, for triathletes and people competing in the Ironman. It uses bioavailable forms of the minerals and focuses more on a higher sodium content and lower magnesium content. This is also an electrolyte replacement in pill form designed for long events. Heavy sweat loss equals a higher need for sodium and other minerals. So if you are a triathlete or Ironman competitor and have experienced more than normal sweat loss, you may require a higher sodium intake from Saltstick. Your diet, requirements, susceptibility to muscle cramps and sweat loss will determine your sodium and magnesium needs.
A 2015 double-blind placebo study from Spain found that triathletes who used 12 salt capsules divided into three doses during a Half Ironman on top of their sports drinks completed the race 26 minutes faster than the placebo group who also used sports drinks, but placebo capsules. The researchers later explain that more salt is needed than supplied in sports drinks, however, the taste would ruin the drink. This gives evidence that adding these capsules in addition to your sports drink would be the ideal combination for heavy sweat loss and competitions over 2 hours.
Both Endure and Lyteshow use concentrated ionic sea salt minerals from the Great Salt Lake. They come in convenient liquid drops that you can add to any bottle of water, making them extremely convenient. Endure has slightly more magnesium while Lyteshow includes zinc. Both are great choices for those following a low-carb or keto diet.
According to Lyteshow’s website, it has been clinically tested using firefighters, showing enhanced hydration with less water than regular water. The researchers found that “this can minimize carrying excessive weight, possibly reducing fatigue during extended exercise.” Both of these provide a great middle ground for those wanting to get enough sodium while having a better balance of magnesium, chloride, and potassium without sugar or carbohydrates.
If you want to add a flavor, try my homemade electrolyte drink:
32 oz. water
1 orange, lemon, and 1/2 cucumber sliced
1/4 tsp. Endure or Lyteshow
Dash of stevia
I did some traveling this summer (2015) and tested out numerous mineral waters and took pictures of each of the labels. While some mineral waters were very low in minerals, there were a few that were impressively high in all the electrolytes, including bicarbonate which is often missing and important for pH balancing. What stood out to me about Gerolsteiner from Germany is that it collects minerals from the Dolomites, making it very high in calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate. And it tastes amazing, especially if you crave carbonated drinks.
That combination is perfect for those with headaches, nausea, fatigue and digestive issues. So if your doctor has recommended that you drink an electrolyte drink that isn’t necessarily to be used for exercise and sweating and needs to be low in sodium, this is the best choice straight from nature. However, check with your doctor if bicarbonate is contraindicated with any of your medications. If you are an athlete, keep it in the fridge and enjoy it later in the evening to supply more calcium and magnesium to speed recovery and alleviate sore muscles. If you want more energy and hydration while sitting at your desk, this is the best option. In the US, you can find it in liter bottles in stores like Trader Joes or Whole Foods for $1.68 to $2.00, but if you can’t then online is the way to go.
I make a homemade electrolyte drink with this one by adding lemon juice and stevia, which makes a sparkling lemonade.
Optimal Electrolyte is an excellent formulation with 580mg of potassium bicarbonate to 140mg of sodium bicarbonate, 150mg of magnesium malate/creatine chelate, 75mg of niacin for increasing blood flow, and D-ribose for energy production. This would be a good electrolyte formula for sports that require repeated boosts of sprints like soccer and hockey. If you prefer a sweeter flavor for your electrolyte drink, this would be a good choice.
HEED is an electrolyte powder designed for those that will be experiencing moderate sweat loss and requiring a liquid carbohydrate source. It uses a different type of carbohydrate delivery system instead of simple sugars that may not cause the gastric distress that many sugary sports drinks do. The osmolality for Heed is 280-290, and the osmolality of blood is 280-290. A sports drink should be in this range or slightly less. The carbohydrate content for Heed is 25 grams, putting it at the exact range required by extreme exercise. It has the full electrolyte profile needed for mineral loss (including sufficient magnesium) and vitamin B6, an important precursor of neurotransmitters and assists in the absorption of magnesium. The testimonials of many people using it prove that Heed is currently at the top of the class.
*If you are needing something over the 3-hour mark and beyond, you will need an easy to digest protein source and a more heavy duty profile. Under general circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend using soy. However, Hammer’s research and numerous testimonials show it works better during exercise than whey, while whey is better post-workout. Soy produces less ammonia than whey, leading to less muscle fatigue during exercise. Very few use non-GMO soy and that’s also where Hammer stands out. The best one is Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem.
The Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator is an electrolyte powder that contains just electrolytes with stevia as a sweetener. Athletes sometimes get cramps from sugary drinks when you are not sweating profusely, making this an ideal solution for those wanting something sweeter. The taste of stevia, however, is too strong for some people and it may fall short for those requiring a steady supply of glucose, like for runners and cyclists.
Ultima Replenisher updated their electrolyte powder formula in 2016 and now uses citric acid, malic acid, natural pomegranate flavor, beet juice color, beta-carotene, rebaudioside A and cherry powder in the ingredient section. It has a wide range of vitamins and minerals, resembling a multivitamin on the label. It contains 55mg of sodium, 79mg of chloride, 100mg of magnesium citrate, 250mg of potassium aspartate and phosphate and 65mg of calcium citrate.
While I am aware that aspartate forms may have performance results, I have voiced my concern to the company because when glutamic acid or aspartic acid are not protein bound, it raises levels of glutamate and aspartate in the body. This may be an issue for those sensitive to excitatory effects.
Ultima has traditionally been a popular choice for diabetics or those watching their sugar, sodium and carbohydrate count since it contains zero grams of sugar and carbs.
What about Coconut Water?
A study from 2012 and a study from 2015 found that coconut water has anti-glycation properties, kidney protection, prevented hyperglycemia and oxidative stress. Another study from 2012 took 12 young guys and had them run on a treadmill for 60 minutes, and they were either given bottled water, VitaCoco coconut water, coconut water from concentrate, or a carbohydrate/electrolyte sports drink that they didn’t name. They tested on four different occasions spaced by five days and measured hydration status, performance and subjective measures like thirst, fatigue and stomach discomfort. No differences were reported for fluid retention or performance, but the coconut water and concentrated coconut water group had more bloating and stomach upset.
The best way to enjoy coconut water is to buy a young coconut, take a hammer to the top, and enjoy it fresh and raw. If you want to buy coconut water in the store, you need to be more selective since many companies are going out of their way to deliver cheap coconut water that lasts for two years on a shelf, often from concentrate and with added sugar and flavors. That should make you suspicious and I would like to see raw coconut water tested in additional studies.
What you want to look for is coconut water in the refrigerated section, that uses young coconuts, is not pasteurized and does not contain any added ingredients like natural flavors, fruit juice or sugar. The companies I have found that follow these guidelines include Harmless Harvest, Unoco, Liquitera, Vital Juice and Juice Press. Many of these use a process called HPP, which sterilizes the juice with pressure instead of heat. This keeps the vitamins and enzymes intact.
I have been getting questions about what water bottles I recommend. I use a 40 oz. stainless steel water bottle that doesn’t have an aluminum lining like most stainless bottles do. It’s called a hydro flask and will keep drinks cold or hot. Very satisfying to have a cold drink after a few hours on a trail. I take out the bladder of a 50 oz. Camelbak because I don’t want to worry about using an electrolyte drink in it and cleaning afterward, and the hydroflask fits there perfectly. This size isn’t too cumbersome on your body and is great for hikes or trail runs.
Worst Electrolyte Drinks
The following is based on my opinion and research for the worst electrolyte replacement drinks. When looking at a label for bottled drinks, look for reverse osmosis water. If it doesn’t use it, it is most likely fluoridated, and fluoride binds to magnesium. If a drink doesn’t have magnesium to begin with and uses fluoridated water, I see an increased risk of muscle cramps. Look into it Lebron James. On a serious note, magnesium deficiency may cause sudden cardiac death in athletes, especially those in heat or doing long endurance events.
Gatorade is owned by PepsiCo, the makers of Pepsi and who dominate the sports drink market at 75 percent as of 2014. Many of the colors and flavors seem a little extreme with their bright blues and reds. How are these made? The artificial colors and flavors are derived from aromatic hydrocarbons from petrochemicals. In other words, oil. Manufacturers are not required to divulge this information because artificial colors and flavors are considered intellectual property.
How about the numbered dyes? For starters, these food dyes have been found to inhibit mitochondrial respiration; the ability of the powerhouse of your cells to convert nutrients to energy. Red 3 causes cancer in animals, with evidence that other dyes also are carcinogenic. Three dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) have been found to be contaminated with benzidine or other carcinogens. At least four dyes (Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) cause hypersensitivity reactions and numerous studies found Yellow 5 positive for genotoxicity. Depending on the flavor, Gatorade uses Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40 and Blue 1.
For years, Gatorade used high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, hydrogenated coconut oil (fruit punch flavor), and brominated vegetable oil (orange, strawberry), a flame retardant that is banned in Japan and the European Union. Bromine is a toxin and a goitrogen (harmful to the thyroid). Hydrogenated oils are now banned in many restaurants across the US due to their negative health impacts. They are strongly linked to heart disease and are known to destroy the porosity and flexibility of healthy cell membranes. Gatorade has now removed brominated vegetable oil and replaced it with sucrose acetate isobutyrate.
Gatorade went from GMO high-fructose corn syrup to GMO glucose-fructose corn syrup (changed the ratios to avoid the dreaded HFCS title) to the most recent combination of 34 grams of sugar and dextrose per 20 oz serving. Along with the depleting of minerals caused by sugar, it has also been found to increase the strains of bad bacteria like c difficile (C-Diff) and chlostridium perfringens (one of the main strains of bacteria responsible for food poisoning). Gatorade also only contains sodium and potassium, neglecting calcium, magnesium and chloride which seems like a major oversight for electrolyte loss.
Powerade is owned by Coca-Cola and commands 19.8 percent of the market as of 2014. The online ingredients of the Powerade Berry & Tropical are water, glucose, fructose, citric acid, mineral salts (sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium phosphate), flavourings, acidity regulator (potassium citrate), stabilisers (acacia gum, glycerol esters of wood rosins), sweeteners (sucralose, acesulfame K), colour (brilliant blue). (You have to go to 3rd party websites to find the US ingredients).
You have to break down the label a little more to see what exactly is water, glucose, fructose, “flavorings,” sucralose, acesulfame K and “color,” which I can promise you is not brilliant. The other interesting part in my search is that Powerade is fairly clever in deceiving the customer by getting around the high fructose corn syrup label online. It is also interesting that the European spelling of flavour and colour is used. Why would they do this? Because in certain countries, they label high fructose corn syrup as water, glucose, and fructose! It is the SAME THING. High fructose corn syrup is water, glucose, and fructose. The U.S. label has to tell the ugly truth. Nice try Powerade. Spiking your blood sugar affects hormones and nitric oxide levels, both important for performance. On top of that, if you consume food color dyes, you are blocking your body’s ability to generate energy (study cited under Gatorade).
Here is the U.S. label. Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Less than 0.5% of: Citric Acid, Salt and Potassium Citrate and Magnesium Chloride and Calcium Chloride and Potassium Phosphate (electrolyte sources), Natural Flavors, Modified Food Starch, Calcium Disodium EDTA(to protect color), Medium Chain Triglycerides (contains coconut oil), Brominated Vegetable Oil,Vitamin B3 (niacinamide), Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride),Vitamin B12, Red #40
Despite pressure on Gatorade to remove Brominated Vegetable Oil, Powerade has at this time chosen to keep the flame retardant in their drink, not to mention a red dye.
Powerade has 20 packed grams of high fructose corn syrup leading the way to type 2 diabetes.
3. Powerade Zero
Also made by Coca-Cola, you see the artificial sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame K and artificial colors. Sucralose – also known as Splenda – is an organochlorine. Sucralose has been found to wreak havoc on intestinal bacteria (up to 50% destruction). Your beneficial bacteria is responsible for up to 80 percent of your immune system, manufacturing b-vitamins and vitamin K, your ability to lose weight, and emerging research is connecting anxiety and depression to low beneficial bacteria populations. Sucralose is also used in a lot of whey protein powders.
Ingredients: Water, citric acid, mineral salts (sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium phosphate), colour (anthocyanins), natural raspberry flavouring with other natural flavourings, acidity regulator (E332), sweeteners (sucralose, acesulfame K), color (E133).
PediaLyte is a drink marketed to kids, for hydrating during times of diarrhea and vomiting, and is also used by athletes. As you can see from the label, there isn’t anything that makes PediaLyte stand out. It uses the same common cheap formula of dextrose, salt, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners and food color dyes. They even have a bubble gum flavor. It also missing magnesium and calcium. But their marketing is what makes PediaLyte the first thing people think of when they are sick.
The main headline at the top of each PediaLytes drink is “Pedialyte helps prevent dehydration and quickly replaces fluids, zinc, and electrolytes lost during diarrhea and vomiting.” They have taken it a step further and added prebiotics that help probiotics colonize, yet they use sucralose. From the sucralose study mentioned above, the total numbers of bifidobacteria, lactobacilli and other probiotics were significantly decreased. These strains of bacteria are what help keep you well and prevent diarrhea.
As mentioned under Gatorade, three dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) have been found to be contaminated with benzidine or other carcinogens, and numerous studies of Yellow 5 have been positive for genotoxicity. And Pedialyte is being marketed to children? Or anyone when they are sick?
Ingredients: Dextrose, Citric Acid, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Potassium Citrate, Salt, Sodium Citrate, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Zinc Gluconate, and Red 40, Blue Dye 1 or Yellow Dye 6 depending on the flavor. The AdvancedCare product also uses acesulfame K.
How innocuous can a bottle of water be right? Well, the makers of Gatorade managed to take water and make it worse with the bold ingredients below. Originally it had sucrose and 20mg of sodium, but someone had the idea to add more salt, just take out the sugar and keep the artificial sweeteners as the key to success. But it’s calorie free now! This is just water (no information about reverse osmosis filtering), salt, artificial sweeteners, natural flavor (from where?), water-soluble vitamins that are most likely diminished and barely relevant, and aggressive marketing.
Ingredients for 12 oz. bottle: Water, citric acid, sodium hexametaphosphate, natural flavor, salt, potassium sorbate, sorbate, potassium citrate, sodium citrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), sucralose, acesulfame potassium, calcium disodium EDTA, calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5), niacinamide (vitamin B3), vitamin E acetate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6).
Ingredients of packet: Citric acid, sodium citrate, potassium citrate, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), sucralose, sugar, natural flavors, silicon dioxide, niacinamide (vitamin B3) acesulfame potassium, calcium disodium EDTA, calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5), vitamin E acetate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12).
Vitaminwater is also owned by Coca-Cola. You may have noticed that the bottle contains “2.5 servings” which means you need to multiply everything by 2.5, a deceiving way to lower the amounts on the label from first glance. There are 32 grams of sugar in most of the products, crystalline fructose, and sugar. Crystalline fructose is even higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup and often tainted with heavy metals. Compare 32 grams of sugar in a bottle of Vitaminwater to 35 grams of sugar in one can of Coke. You may have even read the about the lawsuit against Vitaminwater for calling itself a healthy beverage, and Coca-Cola has since acknowledged that it is indeed not. Too much refined sugar will make you cramp while you’re competing, upset your stomach, lower your immunity, deplete minerals and actually dehydrate you. As for the vitamins, they are cheap forms of questionable origin, stability and worthless to the body.
7. ZipFizz Healthy Energy Drink Mix
ZipFizz has been marketed as an electrolyte energy drink. What do you get when you mix sucralose, synthetic folic acid, synthetic vitamin E, a huge dose of B12 and caffeine? Apparently a “healthy” energy drink mix for athletes and anyone active. This one caught my attention when an electrolyte article explained the reasons to avoid sucralose, then listed ZipFizz as their top choice for their readers. ZipFizz discusses what a great sweetener Xylitol is in their FAQ while neglecting to say anything further about their choice to include sucralose. Natural flavors are always anyone’s guess due to being kept secret, and can potentially be MSG.
I’ve talked about the issues with folic acid, huge doses of cyanocobalamin and synthetic vitamin E in my Best and Worst Multivitamin article if you are interested in learning more. Zipfizz also claims 4-6 hours of enhanced energy without the crash from 100mg of caffeine. The caffeine comes from guarana and green tea. If guarana sounds familiar, it’s because you probably have heard of it from the ingredient list in energy drinks like Rockstar. Closer inspection finds that ZipFizz is similar to common energy drinks. The most common ingredients in energy drinks include caffeine, taurine, glucuronolactone, guarana, and B vitamins. Research has found that “when higher doses of caffeine are combined with these other substances currently blended in energy drinks, the subsequent effect cannot always be predicted; adverse effects have been reported, including cardiac arrest.” Caffeine is also a diuretic, causing you to lose more fluid and disrupt electrolyte balance. Therefore, it is wise if you are a coffee drinker that you factor in multiple sources of caffeine.
Ingredients: Citric acid, glucose polymers, potassium carbonate, malic acid, calcium ascorbate, natural flavors, magnesium glycinate, beet color, potassium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, grape skin extract (color), silica, potassium citrate, taurine, sucralose, zinc amino acid chelate, dl-alpha-tocopheral acetate, niacin, grape seed extract, manganese gluconate, selenium-l-methionine complex, d-calcium pantothenate, cyanocobalamin, green tea leaf extract, chromium dinicotinate glycinate, folic acid, pyridoxal-5-phosphate, riboflavin-5-phosphate, xylitol, thiamin mononitrate, copper citrate and methylcobalamin. Contains 100mg of caffeine from guarana and green tea extract.
8. Lucozade Sport
This one was brought to my attention by a reader from England where this drink is popular. There may be a bigger backlash to aspartame in the US than England, where even Pepsi is removing it from their diet drinks. They are just replacing it with another artificial sweetener – sucralose – but one small victory at a time. Where to start with aspartame. I’ll keep it simple and straight to the point. It has been found to contribute to the formation of tumors in the CNS such as gliomas, medulloblastomas, and meningiomas, increased lymphoma and leukemia and is an excitotoxin to brain neurons. Artificial sweeteners in general increased waist circumference 500 percent while aspartame in particular increased blood sugar in diabetes-prone mice. The safety profile of aspartame has most likely been suppressed for many years and is finally seeing its day in court.
This has a poor combination of sucrose, fructose and GMO soy protein (many of the documented health risks of GMO’s can be found in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods). For many sports and activities, drinking protein while exercising at maximum effort can cause gastric distress. For triathletes and the Ironman, the requirements and replenishing schedules are different. Look for non-GMO protein sources like Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem.
It bears repeating that refined sugar has been found to increase the strains of bad bacteria like c difficile (C-Diff) and chlostridium perfringens (one of the main strains of bacteria responsible for food poisoning). Altering bad gut flora isn’t the best strategy in a long race.
Ingredients: Sucrose, whey protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, citric acid, fructose, natural flavors, soy lecithin, magnesium carbonate, salt, red beet, xanthan gum, maltodextrin, potassium phosphate, vitamin E acetate, ascorbic acid.
From the makers of Muscle Milk – one of the most contaminated protein drinks – comes Cytomax. Its advanced carbohydrate system uses crystalline fructose, which has a higher fructose content than high fructose corn syrup and seems to be pushing the limits with heavy metals. Due to their Muscle Milk reputation with heavy metals, I’m not convinced of the purity of this product until further testing is done.
11. Electrolyte Drinks Containing Sodium Benzoate
I originally had NUUN Active Hydration listed here due to the ingredients sodium benzoate and acesulfame potassium. It was brought to my attention that NUUN has now removed these two ingredients from their formula. If you didn’t see your drink listed here, check for sodium benzoate.
When you combine sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid you create benzene, especially in the presence of heat and light (common with storing citrus-flavored soda in a warm garage). Citric acid may act as a catalyst for this process in the presence of ascorbic acid. If the formula contains vitamin C in the active ingredients, it is a prime candidate for this reaction.
Benzene damages the cell’s mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell where you are generating energy in the first place! It has been found to cause cancer – leukemia and other cancers of the blood – by disabling a cell’s DNA. This is especially true for those with certain P-450 CYP1B1 gene variants. Benzene is also found in cigarettes, pesticides, car exhaust, paint and certain laundry detergents. Runners and bikers exposed to car exhaust should be especially mindful of this and try to avoid training in places with heavy traffic.
I hope this helps you choose your electrolyte drinks. Stay hydrated my friends.
All cited studies are linked in orange.