Water Outperforms Sport Drinks

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  • When exercising or doing other strenuous activities, be sure to drink sufficient amounts of pure, clean water to ensure proper hydration; as a general rule, “drink to thirst”
  • Although sports drinks have vast popular appeal, most of them contain too much sugar and toxic ingredients like artificial colors and high-fructose corn syrup to be considered healthy
  • If you need to replace electrolytes due to intense exertion, it’s easy to make a homemade rehydration beverage using natural ingredients

By Dr. Mercola

Drinking sufficient amounts of pure clean water is vital to achieving optimal health. Water and proper hydration are particularly important for athletes and anyone else who exercises.

During times of high-intensity exercise or other strenuous activities, your body needs plenty of pure, clean water. When your body sweats out important electrolytes and minerals through intense activity, you need to replenish them. One of the best ways to do this is in the form of a rehydration drink.

Your first inclination may be to reach for one of the neon-colored sports drinks that appear on store shelves and in vending machines worldwide. These products are hard to miss because they are promoted nearly non-stop on television and in web-based and print advertisements.

As a result, the global market for bottled sports drinks has exploded and is approaching $5 billion in sales annually. Regardless of the hype, these drinks are highly toxic and I recommend you avoid them. In my opinion, pure clean water should always be your No. 1, go-to beverage. If your workouts or sports activities cause intense sweating and you need to replace electrolytes, you might consider making your own rehydration drink.

How to Read the Signs for Your Body's Water Needs

Once your body has lost between 1 to 2 percent of its total water content, it will signal its needs by making you feel thirsty. Using thirst as a guide to how much water you need to drink is a good way to ensure your individual needs are met, day-by-day.

The video featured above is designed to help you determine if you are getting enough water. Unfortunately, by the time your thirst mechanism kicks in you may already be a bit dehydrated. Most studies indicate about two-thirds of us are dehydrated on a regular basis and need to drink more water.

This is particularly true the older you get. Therefore, you'd be wise to learn some of the subtler signals your body sends to let you know it needs more water, including:

Drinking Water Before and After Exercise Is Vital

As you know, pure, clean water is essential for your survival, regardless of your activity level. If you are an athlete or exercise regularly, however, you must get your fluid-replacement issue right to avoid the possibility of becoming dehydrated.

On the other hand, you also do not want to overhydrate. As a general rule, "drink to thirst." While severe dehydration can be life threatening, even mild dehydration is problematic — causing cramping, headaches, irritability and impaired cognition. Lack of adequate hydration will most definitely affect your sports performance and diminish the effectiveness of your workouts. As reported by CNN, sports dietitian Amy Goodson said:

"A 2 percent dehydration level in your body causes a 10 percent decrease in athletic performance. The more dehydrated you become, the worse performance gets."

A lack of proper hydration during exercise diminishes blood circulation, which can make muscles cramp up. If you've ever had them during exercise, muscle cramps can be extremely uncomfortable and painful. Keep in mind changes in your potassium and sodium levels due to sweat loss may also contribute to cramping.

Although you may be tempted to drink sports drinks before your workout to boost your energy, or afterward to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes, you're better off skipping them due to the massive amounts of sugar and other harmful ingredients they contain.

Why Sports Drinks Are Bad for You

Despite their ever-increasing market share and tremendous popularity, sports drinks are a terrible substitute for water. In my opinion, they are among the worst beverages you can consume. Seriously. Below is a list of ingredients from one popular brand:

Many sports drinks contain as much as two-thirds the sugar of a comparable serving of soda. In addition, as reflected above, they are filled with toxic ingredients which can damage your health, such as artificial flavors, artificial colors and high-fructose corn syrup. On top of that, the low-calorie and sugar-free versions most likely contain artificial sweeteners, which are even worse for you than fructose.

It should be of immediate concern to you if you are in the habit of consuming any beverage (or more than one!) on a daily basis resulting in the intake of an entire day's worth of sugar at one time. One sports drink containing 29 grams of sugar amounts to nearly TWICE the daily recommended fructose allowance for people with insulin resistance, and it's 4 grams over the limit for non-insulin resistant folks!

Because your liver has to process all that sugar, you put yourself at risk of chronic metabolic disease and insulin resistance when you overconsume sugar. Unchecked, insulin resistance can progress to metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. The metabolism of fructose by your liver also creates a number of waste products and toxins, including a large amount of uric acid, which drives up blood pressure and causes gout.

Even Pro Athletes Avoid Sports Drinks for Health Reasons

Elite American football quarterback Tom Brady, of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, is one of the elite pro athletes who eschews bottled sports drinks.

Brady, age 39, is well known for his healthy anti-inflammatory diet, which some believe has fueled his longevity in a sport that is physically grueling and replete with injuries. Another key to Brady's success may be the special electrolyte drink he consumes during games. Although you may often see Brady on the sidelines holding a Gatorade cup, what he is drinking is not Gatorade. Team trainers make a custom beverage just for Brady, but he claims he does not know what's in it. Brady says:

"I have this lemon drink with a ton of electrolytes in it. It doesn't have any sugar. I just load up on electrolytes and ... it just keeps me right where I need to be."

Coconut Water Is a Powerhouse of Natural Electrolytes

Did you know coconut water is one of the best rehydration drinks on the planet? Because coconut water is such a well-known source of natural electrolytes, there's a good chance Brady's drink may contain it. Due to its outstanding nutritional profile, coconut water was believed to be used intravenously, short-term, during World War II to help hydrate critically ill patients in emergency situations. Some suggest this practice continues today in some remote areas of the world.

Coconut water is particularly beneficial if you engage in activities resulting in profuse sweating. You can drink it plain or add citrus juice — such as lemon, lime or orange — for flavor. As a result of the rich volcanic soils and mineral-rich seawater in which coconut palms grow, coconut water's nutritional benefits are quite impressive. Coconut water is:

  • Rich in natural vitamins (particularly B vitamins), minerals and trace elements, including iodine, manganese, selenium, sulfur and zinc
  • Packed with amino acids, antioxidants, enzymes, organic acids and phytonutrients
  • A powerhouse of electrolytes and natural salts, especially magnesium and potassium
  • Light, low-calorie and low in sugar, but pleasantly sweet
  • Full of cytokinins, or plant hormones, which have anti-aging, anti-cancer and anti-thrombolytic effects in humans

Coconut water also has an alkalizing effect on your body, which can help correct the cumulative effects of the acidic foods popular in most Western diets. For a complete nutritional profile, visit our Food Facts page. For all these reasons, and more, coconut water is a great choice for post-exercise rehydration.

Experts Suggest Water Is Healthiest Choice for Young Athletes

Sports medicine specialists at Penn State University suggest most children would benefit more from drinking water than bottled sports drinks during athletic events. They say most young athletes do not sustain sufficient intensity or duration of exercise to merit the extra salt and sugar contained in sports drinks. States Dr. Matthew Silvis, director of primary care sports medicine at Penn State Health Medical Center:

"Sports drinks can replenish some of what you lost during exercise, but you really need to be exercising for more than 45 minutes to an hour before you would consider [them]. Many of our kids are not doing enough to warrant it."

Silvis and his colleagues noted the high sugar content of sports drinks has the potential to cause weight gain and tooth decay in children. These beverages, some of which contain caffeine and other stimulants, also have the potential to cause blood-pressure problems, headaches, heart palpitations and upset stomach.

As such, Dr. Katie Gloyer, primary care sports medicine physician at Penn State Medical Group, said, "Kids and adolescents really should not be using these drinks. Water is the best method of hydration." The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also considers sports and energy drinks to be inappropriate for youngsters. Dr. Marcie Beth Schneider, pediatrician, member of the AAP committee on nutrition and co-author of a 2011 report on the subject, stated:

"There is a lot of confusion about sports drinks and energy drinks, and adolescents are often unaware of the differences in these products. Some kids are drinking energy drinks — containing large amounts of caffeine — when their goal is simply to rehydrate after exercise. …

In many cases, it's hard to tell how much caffeine is in a product by looking at the label. Some cans or bottles of energy drinks can have more than 500 mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of 14 cans of soda."

Due to these concerns, it's best to avoid giving bottled sports drinks to your children, at least not on a regular basis. You can easily mix up a comparable beverage at home that will safely satisfy the thirst needs of any young athlete.

How to Make Your Own Electrolyte Sports Drink Using Natural Ingredients

In its simplest form, you can make your own rehydration beverage by adding a pinch of natural, unprocessed salt to a glass of water. I recommend Himalayan salt, which, unlike processed salt, contains 84 unique minerals and trace minerals your body needs for optimal functioning.

If you prefer a drink enlivened with more flavor and color, Wellness Mama shares a homemade recipe for electrolyte replacement that you may find helpful.

For Optimal Health, You Need Sufficient Amounts of Pure, Clean Water

There's no doubt you need pure clean water for optimal health. Changing out any sweetened, bottled beverages in which you regularly indulge for water can go a long way toward improving your health — and helping you maintain an ideal weight. The amount of water you need daily, however, is something you must fine tune based on your individual needs and circumstances.

Remember to listen to your body. Thirst is an obvious signal it's time to replenish your fluids. Fatigue and moodiness can also indicate you need to drink more water.

Probably the best way to gauge your water needs however, is to observe the color of your urine and how frequently you urinate. The color of your urine should be a light, pale yellow. (If you take vitamin B supplements, your urine will be bright yellow, which is normal.) On average, a healthy number of bathroom visits is around seven or eight per day.

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