Nutrition

Healthy Ways to Replenish Electrolytes

Electrolytes fuel the electrical charges that are the very spark of human life
BY Melissa Diane Smith TIMEAugust 17, 2022 PRINT

On hot summer days, you’re more at risk for becoming dehydrated and depleted or imbalanced in important minerals. Try these suggestions for getting more of these essential nutrients, without the sugar typically found in many electrolyte replacement beverages.

Several years ago, my mother, who was in her 90s, became dehydrated and depleted in electrolytes after a bad case of intestinal flu. She was treated with intravenous electrolyte replacement in the emergency room, and the physician recommended electrolyte replacement drinks for her.

She followed a sugar-free diet, so I researched alternatives to commercial electrolyte drinks that contain sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and additives. Within about a week, my mother told me that drinking the sugar-free electrolyte replenishment beverages—cactus water, in particular—made her feel more alert and energized than water alone.

Seeing the improvements that electrolyte replenishment beverages made for my mother, I tried drinking them in place of some of the water I would normally drink during the summertime. I found these beverages helped me more easily maneuver through extreme heat days without getting wiped out in the desert climate in which I live.

I shared this information with clients and friends who were experiencing feeling drained by the heat, and many of them echoed what I experienced—that electrolyte replenishment beverages helped them feel more hydrated and nourished and better able to weather the dog days of summer.

Electrolytes, Dehydration, and Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge. They assist in proper muscle function, maintaining fluid balance, and supporting nerve activity. They include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. When you lose a lot of fluid in a short period of time, you can become deficient or imbalanced in these nutrients.

Electrolytes are required for conducting electrical charges through the body. These charges are involved in every bodily function, from cellular signaling and brain function, to nerve signaling and muscle movement. They are the very spark of life.

Dehydration—a condition that occurs when more fluid leaves the body than enters the body—can affect the concentration of the body’s electrolytes, leading to an electrolyte imbalance. Because most people don’t drink enough water, mild dehydration is a common medical condition.

Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can also develop from sweating while working or exercising outdoors on a hot summer day; from medical conditions such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever, loss of blood; from diseases such as diabetes; or as a side effect of some medications such as diuretics.

Elderly people are at a higher risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance because they are more apt to develop medical conditions or to take medications that increase this risk.

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in adults and the elderly include fatigue, dizziness, confusion, headache, irritability, being disoriented, thirst, dark urine, and sunken eyes. Especially in older adults, weakness and dizziness can provoke falls, a common cause of injury in the elderly.

Depending on which type of electrolyte imbalance develops, a number of symptoms can result, including muscle aches, spasms, twitches, and weakness; heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat; blood pressure changes; excessive tiredness; confusion; and nervous system disorders.

Moderate dehydration and electrolyte imbalance are often treated with intravenous hydration in urgent care, the emergency room, or the hospital. Mild dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can usually be treated by having the person drink more fluids.

Sugar-Free Ways to Replace Electrolytes

A 20-ounce Gatorade thirst quencher contains 34 grams of sugar—all from added sugars. Though some serious performance athletes may need to quickly fuel with calories from sugar, if you’re the average American, you won’t. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans are eating and drinking too many added sugars, which can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

To avoid drinking commercial electrolyte replacement beverages made with added sugars, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, or additives, try the following healthier ways to increase your intake of electrolytes.

Coconut Water

Coconut water is a clear liquid in the fruit’s center that is tapped from young, green coconuts. It contains easily digested carbohydrates in the form of naturally occurring sugar and is rich in antioxidants, electrolytes, and minerals.

Sometimes dubbed “Mother Nature’s sports drink” by marketers, unsweetened coconut water has fewer calories, less sugar, less sodium, and more potassium than a commercial sports drink, which has added sugars. A 2010 study with different groups of exercisers concluded that coconut water showed fluid retention similar to a sports drink, and, for those who accept and tolerate coconut water well, the drink may be recommended for post-exercise rehydration.

The healthiest brands of coconut water are made from young coconuts that are sustainably grown and harvested, contain no additives, preservatives, or added sugars, and aren’t made from concentrate. Brands to look for include Taste Nirvana and Harvest Bay plain variety. For an eight-ounce serving, these brands of coconut water supply 40 to 48 calories and eight to nine grams of naturally occurring sugar.

Coconut water powder, available from several different companies, is another option. Stir or shake one tablespoon of powder into a glass of water to quickly create a hydrating sports drink, or follow the label directions. To avoid added sugars, read labels of coconut water powder carefully, watching out for sneaky forms of sugar such as maltodextrin. Laird Superfood Hydrate coconut water powder, available in three flavors, is one brand that contains no added sugars.

Cactus Water or Cactus Nectar

The people of the Sonoran Desert have long used prickly pear cactus, also called nopal, for medicinal and nutritional purposes. They believe it’s an essential element to their health and survival. That may be for good reason: Research has found that prickly pear cactus is a good source of nutrients, including electrolytes and antioxidants.

True Nopal cactus water is a convenient, ready-to-drink beverage with the ingredients of water, prickly pear concentrate, and natural flavor. It has a refreshing yet subtle fruit taste and no added sugars or sweeteners. It contains about half the calories and sugar as the leading brand of coconut water while still providing electrolytes, especially potassium and magnesium, and antioxidants. An eight-ounce serving supplies 20 calories and four grams of naturally occurring sugars.

Another option: Arizona Cactus Ranch makes prickly pear nectar, or 100 percent pure prickly pear concentrate. As a source of electrolytes and antioxidants, take one teaspoon per day. Or make prickly pear electrolyte water by adding two to four teaspoons of prickly pear nectar to a 16-ounce bottle of water, and shake it or stir it before drinking.

Note: Both coconut water and cactus water are low in sodium. If you think you could be deficient in sodium, which is common during electrolyte depletion, add a pinch of high-quality salt to a meal, or eat a salty snack, such as salted nuts, fermented raw sauerkraut, or a pickle, in addition to drinking these higher-potassium electrolyte beverages.

A Homemade Electrolyte Drink

There are creative ways to make your own electrolyte replacement beverages that naturally supply potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium. Here are two ideas of no-added-sugar, electrolyte-containing combinations to try:

Recipe One: Juice 6 stalks of celery (a natural source of sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and phosphorus), 1 apple, and 1 lemon.

Recipe Two: Blend 1 banana, 1 cup almond milk, and 1 cup kale. The banana and almonds are rich in magnesium and potassium. Kale is a superfood and an excellent source of calcium and magnesium.

ThePaleoDiet.com offers several ideas for other electrolyte drinks including a lemon-lime electrolyte drink made by blending until smooth 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, 3 or 4 pitted Medjool dates, and 5 cups of water until smooth in a high-speed blender. The dates add potassium, calcium, and magnesium—and natural sweetness.

Powdered Electrolyte Supplements

You can also mix a powdered electrolyte dietary supplement into water and drink it as needed. Ultima Replenisher Electrolyte Mix and Vega Sport Hydrator are dietary supplements not sweetened with sugar, but rather are naturally sweetened with sugar-free stevia extract. Containing just nutrient supplements and stevia, the Ultima Replenisher product has zero calories. Vega Sport Hydrator contains coconut water powder in addition to nutrients and stevia, and has five calories per serving.

Eat Mineral-Rich Foods and Drink Water

Marketers have done an effective job of making you think you need a beverage to replace electrolytes. But you can obtain the critical minerals from many foods, too. In most cases, you can eat foods rich in appropriate minerals and accompany them by drinking water to adequately replenish electrolytes without a special drink. For snacks or when making meals, include:

  • Real salt, pink Himalayan salt, or Celtic sea salt to provide sodium and chloride;
  • fresh fruits and vegetables to load up on potassium;
  • protein-rich foods, such as meats, poultry, fish, nuts, and beans for phosphorus;
  • dark green leafy vegetables and nuts to supply magnesium; and
  • dairy products, nuts, and greens for calcium.

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutrition counselor and journalist who has been writing about health topics for more than 25 years. She is the author of several nutrition books, including “Syndrome X,” “Going Against the Grain,” “Gluten Free Throughout the Year,” and “Going Against GMOs.”

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutrition counselor and journalist who has been writing about health topics for more than 25 years. She is the author of several nutrition books, including “Syndrome X,” “Going Against the Grain,” “Gluten Free Throughout the Year,” and “Going Against GMOs.”
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