Updated: Jun 11, 2022
Find out which one fits your needs and make the best choice for you and your daily routine.
Are you looking for the best way to hydrate your body? You are not alone. Water is recommended as the healthiest way to hydrate your body. But sports drinks are quite a rage and are also being recommended, as they contain high amounts of electrolytes, vitamins, and carbohydrates which help in improving your athletic performance. There have been a lot of debates about whether water or sports drinks is better and if one should substitute the other to hydrate their ups. The next question that arises is: "is water or sports drinks the best option?"
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Water Vs. Sports Drinks: What's the Difference?
Water is a natural substance composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. That is the reason you can see water very often referred to as H2O. It doesn’t have color, odor, or taste. And it is essential for our survival. Your body weight is 60% water. Water serves as the solvent of choice within our bodies where substances dissolve and is necessary for many metabolic processes to happen.
Sports drinks or electrolytes drinks are beverages that were created to replace the water and electrolytes that athletes lose through sweating after their competitions or training. They contain sugar (some are sugar-free) and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium). And some of them come with vitamin B included. There are three types of sports drinks, classified according to the concentration of carbohydrates and electrolytes: Hypotonic, Isotonic, and Hypertonic.
How do Hypotonic, Isotonic, and Hypertonic sports drinks work?
To understand how sports drinks work, we have to look at basic science.
A sports drink that is hypotonic will have less sugar and electrolytes than the concentration present in our cells. Our body is constantly looking to find a balance. Therefore, when you ingest a hypotonic sports drink, the body will try to establish a balance and the water in the hypotonic sports drink will move inside the cells. Here is an illustration to help you understand it much better.
With isotonic sports drinks, they have about the same concentration of sugar and electrolytes as in the inside of our cells. Therefore, there is no water movement from the sports drink to the cell or vice versa. Look here:
With a hypertonic sports drink, you will have more concentration of sugar and electrolytes than inside the cells. This causes water movement from the cells to the gut to balance the concentration. This is how it happens:
So, which one is better? Water or Sports drinks?
Studies have shown that the answer to that depends on each individual’s needs. For example:
Hypotonic Sports Drinks – This option offers quick hydration with little concentration of sugars and electrolytes. Therefore, if you are taking part in vigorous activity or exercise for 60 minutes or more, you can consider a hypotonic sports drink.
Hypertonic Sports Drinks – Here you will get a boost of energy due to the high concentration of sugar, but it won’t offer fast hydration. Remember from the explanation in the previous section, that this type of drink will cause the water to move out of the cells (dehydration). So, people that do very strenuous and prolonged activities, like competitions in triathlons or races, can benefit from the energy provided by the extra carbohydrates, but they still need to replace the water lost through sweating.
Isotonic Sports Drinks – This one won’t do much in terms of hydration, since the movement of water in and out of the cell cancels each other. So, it gives you a boost of energy from the sugars but won't hydrate you as fast as an hypotonic beverage.
Water – If your purpose is hydration, and there is no immediate need to rehydrate, then this is the best option of all. Because it doesn’t contain carbohydrates or electrolytes, it will move to the inside of the cells, therefore hydrating you without adding unnecessary calories. After all, your carbohydrates and electrolytes are easy to get from food.
Is there anything else to be considered?
The simple answer is yes. Not because you think you fall into one of the categories mentioned above, that means that you are free to go with a particular selection. Everyone has to take into consideration his/her health status. For example, a diabetic patient who exercises for an hour should consider water for hydration, instead of a hypotonic solution. Even when it offers a less concentration of sugar, it is still additional sugar, which is the last thing that we want to give to a diabetic. And the same happens with other medical conditions, like chronic kidney disease or high blood pressure.
Another thing to consider is your level of dehydration. What to drink when you need to rehydrate also depends if you are mildly, moderately, or severely dehydrated. You know that you are mildly dehydrated if you are thirsty. But if you are thirsty, have less urine than regularly and darker than usual, feel your mouth dry, have headaches, or have dizziness, then your dehydration is moderate. Severe dehydration will show all these symptoms but on a larger scale plus you will have low blood pressure, a fast heartbeat, fever, and delirium or unconsciousness.
Mild-to-moderate dehydration can be treated at home, but if the dehydration is severe, you need to seek immediate medical help.
In conclusion, no one can say which one is the best for your health and hydration between water and sports drinks. It all depends on your individual needs. Like everything else in life, moderation is a key player. Excessive sports drink intake is unhealthy as it adds lots of sugar to your body, increasing your body weight due to the extra calories. And also, if you have certain medical conditions, drinking sports drinks can contribute to their worsening. On the other hand, drinking water in excess also has negative consequences. Therefore, talk to your doctor and ask him what is the best way to rehydrate in your case and help you establish a hydration plan.
And as always, follow a healthy lifestyle and come back for the next topic.
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