- Electrolyte drinks and supplements are commonly consumed by endurance athletes to help replenish essential salts lost through sweat, as well as to rehydrate.
- However, a new study by Stanford University suggests they may not be as effective as many people think.
- Consuming electrolyte supplements while taking part in extreme endurance events was not found to prevent dehydration or having too little sodium in the blood.
- In extreme cases these problems can lead to altered mental status, seizures, pulmonary edema, and even death.
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Pre-workout caffeine, BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) sipped during exercise, or electrolyte drinks and protein shakes after pounding the pavement – for those who take their fitness seriously, there’s a seemingly neverending array of supplements which, if we’re to believe all the marketing and hype, will help us perform better and recover quicker.
However, some health professionals maintain that the majority of these products are unnecessary, and the latest to be revealed as possibly not all they’re cracked up to be are electrolyte drinks, according to a new study.
Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium, are minerals dissolved in water which can conduct electricity and are used by the body for various essential functions, according to Healthline.
The idea behind electrolyte-replenishing sports drinks, commonly consumed by runners and endurance athletes, is that when you sweat, you lose essential salts as well as fluid, and the drinks are meant to help you replenish them as well as rehydrate.
But the effectiveness of these beverages may have been wildly overestimated, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Stanford University concluded that the supplements can’t be relied upon to keep essential sodium levels balanced.
“In the past, athletes were told to make sure they’re taking electrolyte supplements and drinking as much water as they can,” said lead study author Grant Lipman.
“It was generally thought that that would prevent things like muscle cramping, electrolyte imbalances, and dizziness. But there is currently no evidence to show this is true.”
The study assessed 266 ultramarathon runners who were competing in an incredibly challenging endurance event called RacingThePlanet which involves running 155 miles in total across rough terrain and through adverse weather in different deserts around the world, all in the space of a week.
“It’s the perfect outdoor lab for easily generalizable results,” said Lipman.
Athletes were assessed both before and after a 50-mile race on day five of the challenge, and they were asked what electrolyte supplements they would be taking and when – some took tablets, others diluted electrolytes in water.
If your sodium levels are imbalanced, you are more at risk of illnesses including hypernatremia and exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) which were the main focuses of the study.
The researchers explained that EAH can be particularly harmful as it can result in altered mental status, seizures, pulmonary edema, and even death – there have been 14 cases of death from EAH since 1985, according to the study.
The scientists found that 41 of the athletes had sodium imbalances by the end of the race: 11 had EAH due to overhydration, and 30 were dehydrated due to too high a sodium concentration in the blood.
They concluded that temperature played the biggest role in creating the imbalances, with 88% of the imbalances occurring in hot climates.
“Electrolyte supplements are promoted as preventing nausea and cramping caused by low salt levels, but this is a false paradigm,” said Lipman.
“They have never been shown to prevent illness or even improve performance – and if diluted with too much water can be dangerous.”
Lipman says the results could be applied to a range of different forms of exercise, and encouraged athletes to drink when they’re thirsty, not when they have planned to drink: “Listen to your body. Stop drinking if you feel bloated or nauseous.”
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