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Electrolyte Supplements Don’t Actually Prevent Dehydration, Study Suggests

According to a new study, the electrolytes that we all thought were keeping athletes hydrated and healthy during extensive periods of exercise shouldn’t actually be relied upon exclusively for that purpose. In general, beverages like Gatorade are meant to be ingested during high-endurance workouts, sports games, training etc. and its expected to help athletes keep their negative sodium levels low, and hydration levels high as a means of preventing serious illness brought on by overall strain to the body. 

A recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine focused on a group of 266 professional marathon runners who were participating in RacingThePlanet, which is known as an extreme sporting event that requires participants to run 155 miles over the course of a week. The route for the marathon is known to go through rough terrain and various deserts. Researchers from Stanford University, who performed the study, were focusing on something known as hypernatremia; which is basically a fancy term for when the sodium levels in your body are too high, or low, resulting in dehydration. 

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The researchers were focusing specifically on exercise-associated hyponatremia, or EAH, which is caused by a massive increase or decrease in sodium levels in the bloodstream as a result of physical activity. While a decrease in sodium levels may seem like it would have the opposite effect of dehydration, there are certain sodium compounds that are necessary for keeping our hydration levels balanced and body systems functioning to the best of their ability. 

EAH is a big problem amongst athletes, as it doesn’t just cause traditional dehydration symptoms like dizziness, headache or exhaustion. EAH can lead to an altered mental state, seizures, fluid to build in the lungs, and in some cases, death. The research found that things like hot weather can obviously increase the chances of an EAH associated illness from occurring, but it also concluded that the use of sodium and electrolyte supplements, like Gatorade, does little to prevent any EAH symptoms, contrary to what we’ve all thought. 

“In the past, athletes were told to make sure they’re taking electrolyte supplements. 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. Most electrolyte strategies end up with a drink that has a lower sodium concentration than what is found in the body. This is why drinking too much electrolyte solutions can result in EAH,” said Dr. Grant Lipman, the lead author of the study.

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The study itself included 61 women and 205 men, and researchers monitored each individual as they ran the RacingThePlanet course. The races took place over the course of two years at alternating times, most of the athletes competed in weather hotter than 93 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The process was quite simple, yet specific: data was collected from the athletes at the beginning and the end of a 50-mile portion of the race. Beforehand, each athlete was weighed and had to report what type of electrolyte supplement they were taking and what their overall drinking/hydration strategy was. The researchers needed to know how often they would be taking their supplements and drinking.

Once they finished the 50 miles, before they could hydrate or rest, researchers weighed them again and asked how closely they followed their hydration regime that was discussed beforehand, the team also took blood samples from everyone to get some more cellular data regarding the sodium levels in each athlete’s blood. 

The results showed that 41 of the 266 participants had notable sodium imbalances in their blood, 30 were considered to be dehydrated, and 11 had EAH. The conclusion based on these results worked to prove that while electrolyte supplements may promote themselves as hydrating, there really is no direct link to show that they prevent any sort of illness.

“Electrolyte supplements are promoted as preventing nausea and cramping caused by low salt levels, but this is a false paradigm. They’ve never been shown to prevent illness or even improve performance, and if diluted with too much water, can be dangerous. The takeaway is to listen to your body, no matter what sport you are participating in, and particularly pay attention in the heat,” Lipman concluded.

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