Science-backed healthful electrolyte drinks (and how to make them)

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceScience-backed healthful electrolyte drinks (and how to make them)

Finding healthy electrolyte drinks should be easy. You should be able to visit any convenience store, buy the perfect hydration elixir, and get back to your day. Maybe in an alternate reality. In this world, it can actually be difficult to find healthy beverages in most places.

The biggest problem is sugar. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want to slam 50 grams of sugar (a whopping 300 empty calories) along with my fluids. I’m also not fond of cavities.

But wait, you might be thinking, doesn’t sugar help with hydration? Well, up to a point, glucose helps bring water and minerals through the gut, but the fact is you don’t need much sugar to achieve this effect. More importantly, you don’t need any glucose for your everyday hydration needs.

In many places you can find sugar-free electrolyte options, and that’s a step in the right direction. But I haven’t seen one popular electrolyte drink with enough sodium to move the needle into the range of what your body needs. The truth is, a few hundred milligrams of sodium is woefully inadequate for post-exercise hydration. People lose grams of sodium on a sweaty day.

And it’s not just exercise. Regardless of sweat loss, most healthy people need more sodium to feel and perform their best. Electrolytes may not contain calories, but they are essential for energy.

Today I’ll be covering what constitutes a science-backed healthy electrolyte drink, including how to make one: both with or without LMNT. First though, let’s align on what hydration really means.

Hydration Basics

The point of an electrolyte drink is to hydrate you. But what does it mean to stay hydrated?

It means maintaining fluid balance in your body. The proper distribution of water in body tissues (fluid balance) keeps your blood flowing, your brain functioning, and your skin hydrated. It also keeps you feeling strong, alert, and energized.

Most people, however, think staying hydrated means drinking more water. Unfortunately, that’s a poor strategy for proper fluid balance.

First of all, you don’t always need more water. If you drink water beyond thirst, you risk diluting blood sodium levels and facing the consequences. This is a HUGE problem for endurance athletes who drink on a set schedule (beyond thirst) during a race. When they cross the finish line, their sodium levels are so low (called hyponatremia) that they often need emergency medical attention to alleviate their alarming symptoms.

Most people don’t recognize the need to restore sodium levels. Instead, they go about their day with low energy, muscle cramps, and headaches and wonder why drinking more water isn’t helping. Drinking too much water can be part of the problem!

Hydration requires both water and electrolytes. If you neglect either input, you won’t achieve optimal fluid balance. Thanks to our thirst mechanism, we’re generally adequate on the water input. The electrolyte input? Not so much.

Electrolytes and Hydration

Living without electrolytes is like operating your remote control without batteries. You’re going to be stuck on the same channel.

The battery analogy is suitable because electrolytes like sodium, chloride, and potassium carry electrical charges that power your nervous system. Let me share a bit of biochemistry to explain.

Every cell in your body contains a protein called the sodium-potassium pump. By shuttling sodium out of cells and potassium into cells, the sodium-potassium pump:

  • Keeps the cell primed for nerve impulses to fire
  • Regulates muscle contraction
  • Enables communication between brain cells
  • Helps shuttle nutrients into cells
  • Regulates fluid balance inside cells

Is it surprising that electrolyte deficiencies cause everything from muscle cramps to brain fog? These minerals (especially sodium and potassium) are fundamental to your inner machinery.

And it’s not just tangible symptoms. Both sodium deficiencies and potassium deficiencies can elevate blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease. When your fluid balance isn’t right, your heart health can suffer.

Let’s shift to more practical matters now.

What Makes a Good Electrolyte Drink?

The formula for a healthy electrolyte drink isn’t complicated, but it does require hitting several criteria. Let’s go through them now.

#1: It’s Low In Sugar

Many electrolyte drinks (especially sports drinks) contain loads of sugar. Unfortunately, high sugar intake has been linked to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, liver disease, kidney disease, and many other chronic conditions.[*][*][*][*][*][*][*]

Most of the sugar in the American diet comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. If we want to slow the epidemic of modern disease, we need to stop swilling these sugar bombs. Yes, so-called “sports drinks” included.

Sports drinks aside, many “healthful” electrolyte products contain a moderate amount of glucose. The marketing claim is that you need sugar to absorb fluids and electrolytes properly, but this is misleading. Though glucose does enhance electrolyte absorption via the SGLT-1 transporter in the small intestine, it’s not a necessary ingredient for hydration. There are actually many other cotransporters available to us (read this article for a detailed rundown). But even without those, drinking saline solution (salt plus water) was shown to reverse exercise-associated hyponatremia in distance runners.

#2: It Contains Sufficient Sodium

Athletes exercising in warm climates lose between 3.5 and 7 grams of sodium per day through sweat.

Replacing that sodium in 250 milligrams increments (a typical dosage for electrolyte products) isn’t a winning strategy, especially when those 250 mg sodium are accompanied by a whopping 20-50 grams of added sugars. Imagine pounding 14 or more of these sports drinks in a single day to optimize your sodium levels. Your sugar intake would be astronomical.

That’s why we put a whole gram of sodium in every stick of LMNT, and zero sugar. It’s enough sodium to make a meaningful impact on your:

  • Energy levels
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Concentration
  • Exercise performance
  • Keto flu symptoms
  • And more

Keto and low-carb dieters are almost always short on sodium. (Low-carb diets lower the hormone insulin, increasing sodium loss through urine.) When our clients bump up their salt intake, they realize their “keto flu” was really a sodium deficiency flu.

#3: It Contains the Right Electrolytes

A healthful electrolyte drink should also contain potassium and magnesium. Why potassium and magnesium? Because most people are deficient in one or both of these minerals.

Between 60–80% of Americans fall short of the National Academy of Medicine adequate intake for potassium: 3.4 grams for men and 2.6 grams for women. Another scientific review suggests 3.5–5 grams of potassium per day may be more optimal.

Magnesium deficiency is also pervasive in society — we should be shooting for around 400–600 mg daily. Taken together, these deficiencies are bad news for heart health, bone health, immune health, kidney health, etc.

That’s why sodium, potassium, and magnesium round out the LMNT electrolyte trio. Most people get an excess of dietary phosphorus (bad news for bone health), so we left out that electrolyte. Ditto for calcium, which may (in supplemental form) increase arterial calcification.

Check out this article for the detailed explanation of LMNT’s Electrolyte Ratios.

Popular Electrolyte Drinks To Avoid

Most electrolyte drinks don’t meet the above criteria. They’re too high in sugar, too low in sodium, and formulated without the correct electrolytes.

Here are some examples:

  • Coconut water. This mega-popular “health drink” does a great job of delivering potassium, but not sodium. And don’t be fooled by “no added sugar” messaging. Coconut water is naturally high in sugar, which makes it infeasible for low carb diets.
  • Sports drinks. Avoiding sports drinks is a no-brainer if you value your long-term health. With most popular options containing barrels of sugar and artificial ingredients, but a mere fairy dusting of electrolytes, they’re not much to rave about. Also, ask your dentist about sports drinks and teeth stains next time you’re in for a cleaning.
  • Store-bought electrolyte water. These are bottles of “electrolyte water” with only trace amounts of electrolytes added for taste. This scam fools a lot of people. Don’t let it fool you, read the ingredient label.
  • Rehydration solutions. Oral rehydration solutions are helpful for critical hydration situations (when your kid is sick and struggling to keep down food, for example), but they’re not an everyday option. Too much sugar and artificial junk.

Okay, so the store is typically a bad place to find healthy electrolyte drinks. Just because a product is labeled as an “electrolyte” drink, doesn’t mean it has a meaningful amount of electrolytes. Don’t worry, though, because you can make your own!

How To Make a Healthy Electrolyte Drink

All you need to make a healthy electrolyte drink is water and salt. Bonus points if you add potassium, magnesium, and a squeeze of citrus fruit. You’re aiming for a salty taste, somewhere between seawater and plain water.

Adding half a teaspoon of salt per 16 ounces of water is an intelligent way to stay on point. In combination with your sodium intake from food, this should help you hit a daily target of 4–6 grams of sodium (2–3 teaspoons of salt). Remember, if you sweat a lot your needs may be several grams higher.

The downside to electrolyte homebrews? Making them yourself can be time-consuming, messy, and relatively difficult to make taste great. For a more convenient option that checks all the boxes, try LMNT. It’s our healthy electrolyte drink mix with zero sugar, zero artificial ingredients, all the electrolytes you need, and bonus points in the flavor department!

LMNT is easy, healthy, and delicious. What more could you want in an electrolyte drink? My favorite flavor is Chocolate Salt, which I add to my Pre-Workout Coffee. I use cold brew coffee, a good quality whey protein, MCT powder, and 1 sachet of Chocolate Salt LMNT for a tasty and energizing pre-workout drink.

Whether you use LMNT or roll up your sleeves with DIY brews, be sure to get your fluids and electrolytes on point. Your energy and long-term health will thank you.

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