The Truth About Sports Drinks

by Dr. David Eifrig

In the 1970s and 1980s, a new fitness fad took hold of America…

Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda appeared in living rooms across the country in brightly colored spandex, getting folks bouncing and exercising to upbeat, popular tunes. And amid this popular fitness craze were companies ready to pounce on the market, offering remedies and accessories for health-minded folks.

In the 1990s, it was hard to miss Gatorade. Anytime you’d turn on your TV, you’d see commercials featuring top athletes like Michael Jordan, Yao Ming, Peyton Manning, and Derek Jeter.

“Life is a sport – drink it up” was the motto. The Gatorade logo was everywhere – signs at sports arenas, athletic jerseys… even the giant water coolers that got dumped on the coach’s head at the end of a football game. You couldn’t even attend a child’s soccer game without seeing bottles of Gatorade everywhere.

But Gatorade Wasn’t the First

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In 1927, Glucozade (known today as Lucozade) hit the shelves. It was a citrus-flavored glucose and water drink marketed as an easily digestible form of energy for folks suffering from common illnesses like a cough or cold. Lucozade quickly became one of Great Britain’s most consumed beverages.

Then in 1965, Dr. Robert Cade developed Gatorade. Cade was a kidney specialist and assistant professor at the Florida University who wanted to figure out how to help football players recover in the hot summer heat. The original recipe consisted of water, sugar (though less than its competitor Lucozade), salt, and lemon juice.

It was the beginning of what would become a major selling point of sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, and Propel.

You’ve probably heard of electrolytes before, especially if you’ve ever seen the ads for electrolyte drinks during an American sporting event. The companies selling these sports drinks make a lot of claims about how healthy these drinks are… saying they’ll make you run faster, jump higher, and lift heavier weights. But how much of this is a marketing ploy, and how much is true?

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are tiny minerals found in your blood that carry an electric charge. Electrolytes play a role in many vital bodily functions, such as balancing the acidity (“pH”) of your blood, moving water throughout your body, and maintaining muscle function. Examples of electrolytes include sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and chloride.

Where do I get electrolytes?

The best natural way to make sure you’re getting plenty of electrolytes is through fruits. Fruits that are particularly high in electrolytes include strawberries, cherries, bananas, mangoes, and watermelons.

Eating your electrolytes is a great way to get them because, unlike Gatorade and other fancy sports drinks, there’s no added sugar when you’re eating a delicious mango (and you don’t need that added sugar, either).

How do I know if I have an electrolyte imbalance?

Infants, young children, and older adults are more likely to experience an electrolyte imbalance. Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Numbness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cramps

You’re more prone to lose extra electrolytes if you have:

  • Burns
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Dehydration or overhydration
  • An eating disorder
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • A substance abuse disorder
  • When taking certain medications – like antibiotics, diuretics and laxatives, chemotherapy drugs, or corticosteroids

As we age, we lose more electrolytes through our urine, because our kidneys are working less efficiently. So it’s even more important for older folks to consume extra electrolytes.

Folks who sweat a lot should also make sure they’re getting plenty of electrolytes. When you sweat, your body loses electrolytes. Electrolytes help your body maintain its hydration. Your body loses them after working out (and not properly hydrating), which increases your risk of dehydration.

Can I have too many electrolytes?

It’s possible to have too many electrolytes, just as it is possible to have too few. Severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to very serious health complications like a cardiac arrest, seizure, or even a coma. For example, too many electrolytes can mean your body has too much sodium, called hypernatremia. Too few electrolytes (and, as a result, not enough sodium) can lead to hyponatremia.

When should I worry about needing electrolytes?

The best times to replenish your body’s electrolyte supply are one hour before exercising and immediately after working out. This will allow your body to function well during your exercise and to recover well afterward.

Do what I do and eat lots of fresh fruits (and vegetables). If I’m reaching for a sports drink, it’s probably because I haven’t eaten enough fruit and I’m already sweating a lot.

But if you choose to hydrate with a sports drink, that’s fine. Just make sure to choose one with little or no added sugar. Or you can make your own by adding a few squeezes of lemon to your water.

Electrolyte drinks come in many different forms – powder, tablets, drops, and already mixed pre-made drinks. Eight ounces of an electrolyte drink has about 14 grams of sugar. You’ll want to look for options with the least amount of sugar possible.

Discover magazine named the electrolyte drink mix made by Elm & Rye the best sports drink of 2023. Other top choices they named include the 365 by Whole Foods Market variety and the Bodyarmor Lyte sports drink.

My Comment: Skip anything with sugar in it. One can buy electrolyte (salt) tablets. Gatorade and other such abominations are just another avenue of how the food and beverage industry uses sugar and high fructose corn syrup to addict unwary consumers to their disease-causing products. Electrolyte tablets are also hugely less expensive compared “sports” drinks.