Dr. Rand on the best and worst ways to get electrolytes this summer

Summertime driving in Houston means a new wave of billboards — often for beverages. Many are for alcoholic seltzer, which remains one of the buzziest drinks of the past few summers. But there’s a burgeoning billboard trend for electrolyte-filled sports drinks.

But what exactly are electrolytes, and why do human bodies need them?

Electrolytes are minerals, including potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium, that become ionized when we ingest them in a polar solvent, such as water, said Dr. Rand McClain, a doctor who works with professional athletes and founded LCR Health.

For instance, cells need plenty of stored sodium chloride to help the body stay hydrated.

“With sodium chloride, or table salt, it will separate and become an ion, so there’s sodium ions floating around in the water in your body,” McClain said. “When you ingest them, they go into the cell, which is where the osmosis comes in. They’re called electrolytes because of the whole electron situation going on.”

Electrolytes enter our cells throughout the day. Diets rife with milk and yogurt are sources for the electrolyte calcium, while bananas promote the electrolyte potassium. Watermelon, avocado and coconut and many other fruits and vegetables offer electrolyte boosts when we eat them regularly.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Want to fight fatigue? Start with tweaking your diet.

On days indoors with little to no physical activity, our kidneys excrete unused salt or electrolytes at a natural pace, he added. But on extremely hot days or during exercise or athletic competition, our bodies crave electrolytes because we sweating them out at a faster rate, McClain said.

For runners on race day or athletes before competitions, he recommends upping electrolyte intake, either through a diluted sports drink or by adding more regular table salt with dinner the night before.

“You don’t need fancy electrolyte drinks; I used to make my own,” McClain said. “I would get a liter of water with a quarter to half teaspoon of table salt, add lemon and honey, and voilà — you have a sports drink.”

Gatorade, the first nationally marketed electrolyte-filled sports drink, was developed in 1965 by scientists at the University of Florida hoping to create “synthetic sweat” for the Gators football team.

More than 55 years later, Gatorade has released a sweat patch, which is supposed to scan the body during a workout and relay that information to a cellphone app that will notify the person when they need to hydrate.

Sports drinks work to replenish electrolytesbecause they give you energy through added minerals potassium and magnesium, which are lost during intense workouts, he said. But our cells’ electrolyte balance is important on days when we sweat more than normal.

Sodium in our bodies controls our water balance, and electrolytes such as calcium, potassium and magnesium activate proteinsthat make our cells work properly, said Dr. Michelle Udayamurthy, managing physician at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic’s Berthelsen main campus.

When our cells have an electrolyte imbalance, we can feel nauseated, lethargic and have fluid retention in our hands and feet, Udayamurthy said. Sweat is mainly sodium chloride and water; we lose electrolytes when we sweat, which can leave us feeling wiped out.

“You 100 percent need electrolytes in your body, but it has to be a balanced amount,” Udayamurthy said. “It’s person-to-person dependent, depends on what activity you’re doing and whether you’re out in the hot sun.”

Though sports drinks contain electrolytes, many also contain too much sugar to be considered a healthful option, she said. All that sugar can make dehydration symptoms worse, too.

The American Health Association recommends adults limit their sugar intake to 24 grams a day, but a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade Thirst Quencher contains 34 grams. Powerade has 21 grams of sugar, and Vitamin Water has 13 grams. The newer Pedialyte Sport has 14 grams of sugar per liter, and Electrolit contains 12 grams.

When it comes to drinking sports drinks marketed with electrolytes, Udayamurthy recommends diluting them withwater. Halving the sports drink mixed with half water will keep the benefits of the electrolytes while weakening the harmful effects of the sugar.

“Diluting it is better for hydration because you’re diluting the sugar but still getting the good electrolytes in that you’ll need for all that sweating you’ve been doing,” she said.

Katherine Wright, co-founder of Bounce Hydration, says sports drinks are not a long-term solution for people who dehydrate easily or are looking for an electrolyte boost. Her Houston-based company is a mobile IV clinic that services people at their homes or offices when they need additional hydration.

“The average person does not drink enough water in a day, so they feel dehydrated,” Wright said. “Sometimes you feel the effects of that dehydration with a minor headache and feeling low all around.”

Typical IV drips included saline and electrolytes, but additional vitamins are added depending on what the customer wants. The most sought-after drips are geared toward boosting the immune system, slowing the effects of aging and getting over hangovers, Wright said.

Udayamurthy does not recommend IV drips unless they’re prescribed by a doctor.

“If you have any underlying medical conditions that you may not know about, and you pump yourself full of potassium or sodium, it could be damaging to your health,” Udayamurthy said. “With IV hydration, it’s better to stick with a medical professional at a clinic or hospital setting than doing IV services.”

Both McClain and Udayamurthy agree that plain water and some salt packets can work wonders for basic hydration and electrolyte replenishment. The key is to not go overboard and be wary of sugar content and substitutes.

“When you’re sweating and working up a good pace, a little sugar can be good for you, but you don’t want a huge amount,” Udayamurthy said. “Diluting them is the easiest way to go.”

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