Electrolytes are charged metallic “ions” that help balance fluid pressure inside our cells and control the pH of our blood. Normal nerve, heart and muscle function relies on adequate amounts of these minerals, and deficiencies can hamper performance dramatically. The root cause of muscle cramps is usually from a lack of electrolytes, especially potassium and magnesium. Water does not supply enough of these minerals anymore. In the past, our water would come down from the mountains, collect minerals from the rocks, become activated through movement and was free of pollutants. Today, our water needs to be purified, distilled and treated which can diminish or completely eliminate the mineral content. To top it off, much of the water has become fluoridated, which binds to magnesium and sets you up for leg cramps.
During our early days of agriculture, fermented drinks fit the bill more than water to maintain energy and hydration all day. These supplied ionic minerals to the body, supplying the muscles with the much needed electricity to function. Today, research has allowed us to design drinks to address the precise needs of the body during physiological, emotional and psychological stress to allow us to push beyond what is considered humanly possible. If you are really serious about performance, consider also reading the article Adaptogens: The Secret Weapon for Athletes.
HEED is designed for those that will be experiencing moderate sweat loss and requiring a liquid carbohydrate source. It uses a different type of carbohydrate delivery system instead of simple sugars that may not cause the gastric distress that many sugary sports drinks do. The osmolality for Heed is 280-290, and the osmolality of blood is 280-290. A sports drink should be in this range or slightly less. The carbohydrate content for Heed is 25 grams, putting it at the exact range required by extreme exercise. It has the full electrolyte profile needed for mineral loss (including sufficient magnesium) and vitamin B6, an important precursor of neurotransmitters. The testimonials of many people using it shows that Heed is currently at the top of the class.
*If you are needing something over the 3 hour mark and beyond, you will need an easy to digest protein source and a more heavy duty profile. Under general circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend using soy. However, Hammer’s research and numerous testimonials shows it works. Very few use non-GMO soy and that’s also where Hammer stands out. The best one is Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem.
Saltstick was created by a triathlete and organic chemist, for triathletes. It carries the claim of being used by every Ironman World Champion since 2006 and winners of triathlons and events around the world. It uses bioavailable forms of the minerals, making sure they make it to your muscles. While not technically a drink, I decided to include this if you may have a system down and prefer to have your electrolytes as separate pills from your water and carbohydrate sources for precision of mineral loss.
A 2015 doubled blind placebo study from Spain found that triathletes who used 12 salt capsules divided into three doses during a Half Ironman on top of their sports drinks completed the race 26 minutes faster than the placebo group who also used sports drinks, but placebo capsules. The researchers later explain that more salt is needed than supplied in sports drinks, however the taste would ruin the drink. This gives evidence that adding these capsules in addition to your sports drink would be the ideal combination for heavy sweat loss and competitions over 2 hours.
Heavy sweat loss equals a higher need for sodium and other minerals. So if you are a triathlete or Ironman competitor and have experienced more than normal sweat loss, you want something a little more heavy duty. Hammer Endurolytes Fizz is a superior option for those that want to add something to their water and have a separate carbohydrate source in mind.
3. Pure Encapsulations – Electrolyte/Energy Formula
Pure Encapsulations Electrolyte/Energy Formula uses glucose, alpha ketoglutarate and malate, l-tryosine and contains the full range of electrolytes. Alpha ketoglutarate is a precursor to glutamine, and may help protein synthesis and recovery. L-tyrosine is a precursor to catecholamine neurotransmitters including dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine, promoting mental focus and physical endurance under stressful conditions. Vitamin C is included to help promote tissue repair and regulate the adrenals. This is a popular choice from doctors for the patients low in electrolytes, struggling with dehydration and under duress.
4. Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator or Ultima Replenisher
The Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator contains just electrolytes with stevia as a sweetener. It comes in convenient small mini-pencil sized packets. Athletes sometimes get cramps from sugary drinks when you are not sweating profusely, making this an ideal solution. The taste of stevia however is too strong for some people and it may fall short for those requiring a steady supply of glucose, like for runners and cyclists.
Ultima Replenisher uses a wide range of electrolytes, vitamin C, non-GMO maltodextrin, silica and is sweetened with stevia and luo han guo. The taste is stronger than Vega and the opinions are mixed, but if you like the taste of stevia and luo han guo together then you will like this one. Popular choice for diabetics or those watching their sugar and carbohydrate count.
5. PaleoEdge Homemade Electrolyte Drink
Combine in a glass water bottle, shake and cool in the refrigerator.
This will serve the purpose of many recreational activities. It supplies a wide range of minerals and will replenish those lost during minimal sweat.
What about Coconut Water?
A study from 2012 and a study from 2015 found that coconut water has anti-glycation properties, kidney protection, prevented hyperglycemia and oxidative stress. Another study from 2012 took 12 young guys and had them run on a treadmill for 60 minutes, and they were either given bottled water, VitaCoco coconut water, coconut water from concentrate, or a carbohydrate electrolyte sports drink that they didn’t name. They tested on four different occasions spaced by five days, and measured hydration status, performance and subjective measures like thirst, fatigue and stomach discomfort. No differences were reported for fluid retention or performance, but the coconut water and concentrated coconut water group had more bloating and stomach upset.
The best way to enjoy coconut water is to buy a young coconut, take a hammer to the top, and enjoy it fresh and raw. If you want to buy coconut water in the store, you need to be more selective since many companies are going out of their way to deliver cheap coconut water that lasts for two years on a shelf, often from concentrate and with added sugar and flavors. That should make you suspicious and I would like to see raw coconut water tested in additional studies.
What you want to look for is coconut water in the refrigerated section, that uses young coconuts, is not pasteurized and does not contain any added ingredients like natural flavors, fruit juice or sugar. The companies I have found that follow these guidelines include: Harmless Harvest, Unoco, Liquitera, Vital Juice and Juice Press. Many of these use a process called HPP, which sterilizes the juice with pressure instead of heat. This keeps the vitamins and enzymes in tact.
I have been getting questions about what water bottles I recommend. I use a 40 oz. stainless steel water bottle that doesn’t have an aluminum lining like most stainless bottles do. It’s called a hydro flask and will keep drinks cold or hot. Very satisfying to have a cold drink after a few hours on a trail. I take out the bladder of a 50 oz. Camelbak because I don’t want to worry about using an electrolyte drink in it and cleaning afterwards, and the hydroflask fits there perfectly. Great for hikes or trail runs.
When looking at a label for bottled drinks, look for reverse osmosis water. If it doesn’t use it, it is most likely flouridated, and flouride binds to magnesium. If a drink doesn’t have magnesium to begin with and uses fluoridated water, I see an increased risk of muscle cramps. Look into it Lebron James. On a serious note, magnesium deficiency may cause sudden cardiac death in athletes, especially those in heat or doing long endurance events.
Gatorade is owned by PepsiCo, the makers of Pepsi and who dominate the sports drink market at 69 percent. Many of the colors and flavors seem a little extreme with their bright blues and reds. How are these made? The artificial colors and flavors are derived from aromatic hydrocarbons from petrochemicals. In other words, oil. Manufacturers are not required to divulge this information because artificial colors and flavors are considered intellectual property. Some contain hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, hydrogenated coconut oil (fruit punch flavor), and brominated vegetable oil (orange, strawberry), a flame retardant that is banned in Japan and the European Union. A recent article reported that due to consumer pressure, Gatorade is now working on removing brominated vegetable oil and replacing it with sucrose acetate isobutyrate.
You know hydrogenated oils as “trans fats” and some products still contain these despite the numerous studies proving how dangerous they are to our health. They are cheaper than animal fats and provide a longer shelf life for food and beverage products. They are now banned in many restaurants across the US due to their negative health impacts, one of which destroys the porosity and flexibility of healthy cell membranes. Likewise, the bromine, in brominated oils, is a toxin and a goitrogen (harmful to the thyroid).
Gatorade went from GMO high fructose corn syrup, to GMO glucose-fructose corn syrup (changed the ratios to avoid the dreaded HFCS title) to the most recent combination of 21 grams of sugar and dextrose per 12 oz serving. Gatorade also only contains potassium and sodium, neglecting calcium, magnesium and chloride which seems like a major oversight for electrolyte loss.
Powerade is owned by Coca-Cola and dominates 30 percent of the market. The online ingredients of the Powerade Berry & Tropical are water, glucose, fructose, citric acid, mineral salts (sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium phosphate), flavourings, acidity regulator (potassium citrate), stabilisers (acacia gum, glycerol esters of wood rosins), sweeteners (sucralose, acesulfame K), colour (brilliant blue). (You have to go to 3rd party websites to find the US ingredients).
You have to break down the label a little more to see what exactly is water, glucose, fructose, “flavorings,” sucralose acesulfame K and “color,” which I can promise you is not brilliant. The other interesting part in my search is that Powerade is fairly clever in deceiving the customer by getting around the high fructose corn syrup label online. It is also interesting that the European spelling of flavour and colour is used. Why would they do this? Because in certain countries, they label high fructose corn syrup as water, glucose and fructose! It is the SAME THING. High fructose corn syrup is water, glucose and fructose. The U.S. label has to tell the ugly truth. Nice try Powerade. If you consume high fructose corn syrup within two hours post-exercise, you will increase somatostatin which will in turn destroy the production of HGH, negating many of the benefits from exercise.
Here is the U.S. label. Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Less than 0.5% of: Citric Acid, Salt and Potassium Citrate and Magnesium Chloride and Calcium Chloride and Potassium Phosphate (electrolyte sources),Natural Flavors, Modified Food Starch, Calcium Disodium EDTA(to protect color), Medium Chain Triglycerides (contains coconut oil), Brominated Vegetable Oil,Vitamin B3 (niacinamide), Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride),Vitamin B12, Red #40
Despite pressure on Gatorade to remove Brominated Vegetable Oil, Powerade has at this time chosen to keep the flame retardant in their drink, not to mention a red dye.
Powerade has 20 packed grams of high fructose corn syrup leading the way to type 2 diabetes.
3. Powerade Zero
Also made by Coca Cola, you see the artificial sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame K and artificial colors. The troubling part for me with sucralose – also known as Splenda – is that is has a covalent bond with chlorine, creating an organochlorine. What are organochlorines? Agent Orange, DDT, PCB’s, pesticides and insecticides. That’s correct. Your body cannot break these down and are extremely harmful. Ionic bonds with chlorine are found in compounds like salt, covalent bonds with chlorine are found in poisonous and carcinogenic compounds. In a Harvard study, men with the highest organophosphate exposure typically had 20 percent less testosterone than those with the lowest exposure. Sucralose has been found to wreak havoc on intestinal bacteria (up to 50% destruction), which makes sense looking at its chemical structure. Your beneficial bacteria is responsible for up to 80 percent of your immune system, your ability to lose weight, and emerging research is connecting anxiety and depression to low beneficial bacteria populations.
Ingredients: Water, citric acid, mineral salts (sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium phosphate), colour (anthocyanins), natural raspberry flavouring with other natural flavourings, acidity regulator (E332), sweeteners (sucralose, acesulfame K), color (E133).
Vitaminwater is also owned by Coca-Cola. You may have noticed that the bottle contains “2.5 servings” which means you need to multiply everything by 2.5, a deceiving way to lower the amounts on the label from first glance. There are 31 grams of sugar (use to be crystalline fructose, a form even higher in fructose than HFCS and often tainted with heavy metals. Changes now say “cane sugar”) in each bottle of Vitaminwater, compared to 39 grams of sugar in one can of Coke. You may have even read the about the lawsuit against Vitaminwater for calling itself a healthy beverage, and Coca-Cola has since acknowledged that it is indeed not. Too much sugar will make you cramp while you’re competing, upset your stomach, lower your immunity, deplete minerals and actually dehydrate you. As for the vitamins, they are synthetic, incomplete and worthless to the body.
This has a poor combination of sucrose, fructose and GMO soy protein (many of the documented health risks of GMO’s can be found in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods). For many sports and activities, drinking protein while exercising at maximum effort can cause gastric distress. For triathletes and the Ironman, the requirements and replenishing schedules are different. Look for non-GMO protein sources like Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem.
Ingredients: Sucrose, whey protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, citric acid, fructose, natural flavors, soy lecithin, magnesium carbonate, salt, red beet, xanthan gum, maltodextrin, potassium phosphate, vitamin E acetate, ascorbic acid.
From the makers of Muscle Milk – one of the most contaminated protein drinks – comes Cytomax. Its advanced carbohydrate system doesn’t look to be anything but derivatives of GMO corn and it uses both natural and artificial flavor (both which are not named) making this a poor choice. *Update: They took the artificial flavor out recently but have not updated their labels online. Still not convinced of the purity of this product until further testing is done.
7. NUUN Active Hydration
I have seen these popping up near counters everywhere, and I almost purchased one as something quick I could take on a hike in my water since I was running short on time. Then I looked at the label.
Other ingredients: citric acid, sorbitol, sodium carbonate, natural colors flavors, sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate, polyethylene glycol, magnesium sulfate, sodium benzoate, calcium carbonate, acesulfame potassium, riboflavin-5-phosphate.
I went in detail regarding acesulfame potassium (which is also in Powerade) in my article Best Electrolyte Drinks for Diabetes, so I will focus on the preservative sodium benzoate. The concern is that when you combine sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid you create benzene, especially in the presence of heat and light (common with storing citrus flavored soda in a warm garage). Citric acid may act as a catalyst for this process in the presence of ascorbic acid. NUUN Hydration contains vitamin C in the active ingredients, making this a prime candidate for this reaction.
Benzene damages the cells mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell where you are generating energy in the first place! It has been found to cause cancer – leukemia and other cancers of the blood – by disabling a cell’s DNA. Benzene is also found in cigarettes, pesticides, car exhaust, paints and certain laundry detergents. Runners and bikers exposed to car exhaust should be especially mindful of this, and try to avoid training in places with heavy traffic.
I hope this helps you choose your electrolyte drinks. Stay hydrated my friends.