In modern times, staying hydrated can feel like a big ask. Maybe you don’t have time to fill up your reusable water bottle as you dash from meeting to meeting, or you forget to take a few gulps after a sweaty workout. Hydration supplements, like electrolyte powders and tablets, have entered the market to fill in when you fall short of your daily water requirement or when you’re feeling depleted—but are they really necessary?
Before you start spending your money on yet another supplement, it’s important to understand how hydration works. “Water, which constitutes approximately 60% of our body weight, is involved in numerous vital functions,” says dietitian Lauren Manaker, RDN. “It aids in regulating body temperature, lubricates joints, assists in nutrient absorption, and facilitates various chemical reactions within the body.” Maintaining proper hydration levels can also help us think, regulate our emotions, and react to the world around us.
Most of us know drinking enough H2O is important, but how do electrolyte powders fit into the picture? Experts explain.
How electrolyte powders work
“Hydration powders and tablets contain electrolytes, which are important minerals that help regulate and maintain fluid balance in the body,” says Melissa Boufounos, a certified holistic nutritionist specializing in performance nutrition. The human body depends on three major electrolytes to function: sodium (which helps cells absorb nutrients), magnesium (tasked with converting nutrients into energy), and potassium (which works closely with sodium and plays a critical role in heart health).
While regular old tap water contains trace amounts of electrolytes, hydration supplements, like electrolyte powders, deliver higher doses of these minerals. “As long as the hydration option contains the right mix of electrolytes in adequate quantities, it can help support hydration status,” explains Manaker. The sodium in these products may also stimulate thirst and prompt you to grab your water bottle more often, adds Boufounos.
Minimal studies have been conducted on the effects of these dietary supplements, but past research on sports drinks may be used to understand their efficacy. Research suggests that “functional beverages” containing glucose, sodium, and fructose may improve athletic performance by optimizing water absorption. And another small study found that people who drank sports beverages before and after jumping on the treadmill managed to retain more water compared to those who drank unsupplemented water.
Who benefits the most from electrolyte powders and tablets?
Unsurprisingly, hydration products most benefit those who deplete their electrolytes on a daily basis. “Athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and individuals engaged in strenuous physical activities often reap significant benefits from hydration powders,” says Manaker. “These powders offer a quick and efficient means of replenishing lost electrolytes, providing the rapid rehydration needed to maintain performance and recovery.”
Those who are suffering from a stomach bug, food poisoning, or the flu may also benefit from electrolyte powders, given that these illnesses dehydrate the body. “Lastly, people living in or visiting regions with extreme heat can utilize hydration powders to maintain optimal hydration levels and prevent heat-related illnesses,” says Manaker. So, if you have a trip to Tuscany in July or Sedona in August, taking a few electrolyte tablets along may help you adjust and stay hydrated on your journey.
There are also some folks who may want to steer clear of these products. “Hydration powders and tablets may offer some benefits for certain people, but they may not necessarily be for everyone,” says Manaker. For example, while the added sugar and sodium in many of these supplements may help some fuel their runs, those with diabetes or high blood pressure need to be cautious about adding these supplements to their water.
Can electrolyte supplements replace plain old water?
Short answer: Nope. “Hydration powders and tablets should not replace drinking plain water or other hydrating fluids,” says Boufounos. “Despite the popularity of electrolyte supplements and the importance of staying hydrated, it is possible to overconsume electrolytes.” Electrolyte imbalance can affect blood pressure, kidney function, and heart rate, so make sure that you don’t start to over-rely on these tablets.
That said, in moderation, hydration supplements can be helpful. “In some cases, added electrolytes can help people maintain hydration better than drinking plain water,” says Manaker. “But for generally healthy people who are not heavily exercising, sweating, in an extraordinarily hot environment, or in another situation that makes maintaining hydration challenging, water may be just fine.”
Remember, electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, and potassium) also appear in food sources such as yogurt, apricots, and pumpkin seeds. So, if you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet, drinking plenty of water, and participating in moderate exercise, you can probably rely on your grocery haul for your electrolytes.
What to know about added sugar in electrolyte powders and tablets
If you check the label of many electrolyte powders, you may notice added sugar. Boufounos says there’s a valid reason for that. “Sugar is added to hydration powders and tablets to promote water absorption and provide an energy source during exercise,” she says. Athletes participating in endurance workouts of an hour or more should choose products with added sugar because glucose can boost energy levels and aid in performance.
“If you’re using electrolyte products outside of a workout scenario, it’s okay to choose a product that is sugar-free,” says Boufounos.
The verdict on electrolyte powders and tablets
In most cases, electrolyte powders are a bonus—not a necessity—to your diet. Once your doctor gives the okay, ichoose your supplement wisely. Boufounos recommends choosing a product that is third-party tested. “When a supplement is third-party tested, it meets minimum safety standards and doesn’t contain hazardous or banned substances, which is especially important for athletes,” she explains.
And, of course, you should always talk to your primary care physician before adding anything brand-new to your routine. “Your best bet is to ask your healthcare provider whether adding this solution to your diet is something you should be exploring,” says Manaker.