True North Blog

Hydration – The Real Value of Sports Drinks

It is again summertime, and if you are like me or many of my wonderful friends, you are spending as much time outdoors enjoying it as fully as possible.  But it has been warm, and over the last month or so, even very hot and humid.  Not that I am complaining mind you, after all summer should be just that, summer.  Still, it helps to remind us of the importance of being properly hydrated.  This is something of which we as a nation are certainly well aware thanks to the marketing efforts of large multinational corporations that manufacture electrolyte drinks.  The problem, though, is that by and large their messages are misleading and their products not necessarily as helpful as advertised.

The real value of taking a wilderness medicine or survival course, isn’t so much learning to deal with a problem as it is to prevent the problem in the first place.  Certainly, becoming mildly dehydrated makes us uncomfortable with thirst, but there can be problems stemming from other more mild to moderate gradations of heat illness, like heat syncope, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion.  Sipping, then, an oral electrolyte replacement drink while resting in the shade provides an excellent means to recover and stave off worse problems.

One problem, though, with the major electrolyte replacement drink brands, more commonly referred to as “sports drinks,” is that their message is misleading — Our bodies really don’t require as much electrolytes as they lead us to believe.  As the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS) explains in its “Practice Guidelines for Wilderness Medical Care”:

In most instances, replacement of electrolytes during sweat loss, especially during less than sixty minutes of exercise, is not necessary, so [oral electrolyte/replacement solutions] have no advantage over plain water.

In as much, as the Practice Guidelines further add, our electrolyte needs during prolonged physical activity can generally be satisfied “simply by regular meals and snacks.”

The brand name drinks generally have two other problems because they are loaded with sugar (usually high fructose corn syrup).  The first is that they spike our blood insulin levels soon after we ingest it.  This effect is more often known as a “sugar crash,” where we feel a sudden overwhelming sense of fatigue and lethargy.

The second main problem is that all of the sugar in the drink flooding our stomach slows its ability to digest, thereby slowing the body’s ability to absorb the much needed water.  As a consequence, it is the policy of many fire departments to dilute the brand name electrolyte drinks that they provide their firefighters while resting during a blaze in a 1:1 ratio — That is, adding 1 gallon of water to every 1 gallon of sports drink.  Too much sugar, too, especially while mildly dehydrated, may cause diarrhea.

So, what’s the real value of most brand-name sports drinks?

Not much.

Instead, would you like to know a much more effective electrolyte source that you can even make yourself, and at a fraction of the brand cost?

For every one liter of water, just mix in 3-4 teaspoons of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of table salt.  You can even prepackage the dry mix in a plastic bag and place it in your first aid kit in case you, or someone else, should need it.  It’s that easy and simple!

Remember, prevention, is not only the best medicine … it provides the most value too!

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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