Sugar in Electrolyte Drinks: Good or Bad?

Author: Stephanie Selz

If we have learned that we should be limiting sugar in our diet, how are we supposed to feel about sugar in our sports hydration drinks?

When someone is treated medically for dehydration, they are often given a solution that contains sodium, potassium, and glucose or dextrose. Glucose and dextrose are basically the same thing, which we can think of as glucose, which is the sugar that is the main source of energy (for those who are not in ketosis) for our body. This is what we think of as “blood sugar” as it circulates in our blood and goes into our cells to be used as energy. Sugar, or glucose, is a key player in our mitochondrial production of energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (also known as ATP), which powers endless processes in our body. We see sugar added to sports electrolyte drinks and powders (think gatorade, and newer versions such as Liquid IV powder, and Nuun electrolyte tabs). So while it’s clear that sugar gives us energy to directly fuel our body for activity, does it have a purpose in terms of hydration?

A Bit of Anatomy

Just like the earth, us humans are mostly made up of water. And while we call it “water,” it certainly is not just H2O that makes up 60% of our bodies. If you’ve ever tasted your tears or sweat, it’s probably clear that when we lose water from our bodies, it’s not just water. It’s salty water. We are salty bodies–just a little less noticeably so than the oceans. Those salts that we taste in our sweat and tears are electrolytes being excreted. So when we are working our muscles and sweating as we exercise, we lose electrolytes through the process of sweating. But we need that salt.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are essential minerals (like sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, bicarbonate, and magnesium) that we get from the foods and liquids that we eat and drink. Electrolytes are key players in our bodies function, helping to balance fluid levels in our cells and making sure that our nerves, muscles, hearts, and brains are working properly. Electrolytes also aid in bringing nutrients into our cells as well as moving metabolic waste products out of our cells. Hence the name, electrolytes work in their ways because when they are dissolved in water, they become ions and hold either a negative or positive charge. This charge is what conducts energy for actions in our body such as muscle contraction and relaxation, and balancing fluid levels inside our cells.

Being well hydrated with electrolytes not only helps us perform better during exercise, but also helps us to recover a lot faster. As athletes, we can directly experience the negative impacts of being dehydrated even if we are drinking plenty of regular water. Dizziness or light-headedness, nausea, muscle cramping, and muscle weakness are a few of the main signs of dehydration during and after a workout.

By now, hopefully it’s become clear why we need electrolytes to feel good and perform our best during exercise. So then, where does sugar come into this conversation?

The Role of Sugar in Electrolyte Absorption

Our small intestines and our kidneys are both sites where electrolytes and sugars are absorbed and balanced in certain ratios. Oral Rehydration solutions, like Liquid IV, are based on the principle that the presence of glucose stimulates salt and water transport across the small intestine and kidneys. The wall of our small intestine is lined with transporter proteins (Sodium Glucose Symporters) that activate when there is a presence of sodium and glucose together. With this, the presence of glucose speeds up the absorption of both sugar and electrolytes into our blood. And when we have electrolytes in our bloodstream, we give our bodies the resources it needs to keep our cells hydrated. In terms of our kidneys, there is a major part of our nephrons (which are the filtering structures of our kidneys) that also need both glucose and sodium to reabsorb water instead of excreting it out of our bodies. With this, the presence of glucose helps to reabsorb sodium which helps to reabsorb water and keeps us hydrated yet again.

So what is the takeaway here?

Together, the presence of salt and sugar promote hydration of our cells by encouraging our cells to take up more water.

Have you ever heard the term, “not all calories are equal”? Well, this applies to sugars too. There are two main groups of sugars: simple and complex. We also refer to these as simple and complex carbohydrates (in science, carbohydrates and sugars are interchangeable terms).

  • Examples of Simple Sugars are:
    • Sucrose (table sugar)
    • Glucose (found in honey and fruits)
    • Fructose (found in fruit)

You may be aware that complex carbs are “healthier” carbs, because they are released into our bloodstream at a slower rate, preventing huge blood sugar swings that wreak all sorts of havoc on our bodies. In the case of muscle exertion and hydration, however, our bodies like to work with the simplest form of carbs: glucose. Sugar in the form of glucose supplies our muscles directly with energy to work efficiently when we need it.

Glucose, being a simple sugar, is very easily absorbed through our small intestine, which is beneficial in the case of athletics for a few reasons. For one, having easy and quick absorption of sugars/carbohydrates for energy allows us to keep our muscles fueled readily when it is needed. Because it is easily and directly absorbed into our small intestine, it also increases the absorption of electrolytes in our small intestine, promoting quick and reliable rehydration.

Choosing your Electrolyte/Hydration Drink

When it comes to using an electrolyte drink for your active adventures, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Decide when it’s worth it to include sugar: While the science shows that sugar increases electrolyte absorption, it is notable that without sugar, we still do absorb electrolytes into our bloodstream, just not as effectively as when there is glucose present to aid in the transport. For many kinds of exercise that are lower in intensity and/or duration, adding sugar to electrolyte mixes is really not necessary. In fact, with this type of lower-intensity exercise, it can be better for our bodies if we don’t have sugar constantly entering our bloodstream, as this increases our Human Growth Hormone and insulin sensitivity, both of which are beneficial in the long and short term. Personally, when I go on mountain bike rides that are anywhere from 2-7 hours, I drink electrolyte mixes containing sugar because they work wonders for preventing leg cramps and maintaining even energy throughout the ride.
  • Find a good source or make your own: Some products that I like are Nuun and Liquid IV. These are both sold in portable packets that you can add to your water on the spot. Liquid IV contains around 11 grams of sugar per packet, and Nuun contains just 1 gram of sugar for the same serving size. I usually add one packet of Liquid IV into 64 oz of water, and then add 2 Nuun tablets to make it rich in electrolytes but not overly sugary. LMNT also makes good powder packets that contain no sugar at all.

If you want to try a hand at making your own, here are two recipes you can try out:

Recipe 1: Electrolyte Lemonade

 40 oz water

2 tbsp Lemon juice

2 tsp Maple Syrup or Sugar (or 1 and ½ tsp honey)- around 9g sugar

¼-½ tsp sea salt

400 mg potassium chloride powder (~200 mg potassium)

¼ tsp magnesium malate powder (~60 mg magnesium)

Recipe 2: Watermelon Coconut Limeade

24 oz water

8 oz watermelon juice

8 oz coconut water

2 tbsp Lime Juice

¼-½ tsp salt

In conclusion, even though we know that excess sugar in our diet can be detrimental to our health in most situations, there are certainly benefits in adding sugar to our hydration mix when we are engaging in high-intensity or long-duration exercise. By making sure that we’re getting the right balance of minerals, sugars, and water, we can truly feel our best, perform our best, and recover gracefully when we’re engaging in our favorite sports!


Join Stephanie for her class on Herbs for Athletes on November 15th from 6-8 p.m. at CSCH or online.

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