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Q: My elderly mother has become dehydrated a few times recently, and I give tours outdoors in the summertime and sweat a lot. Our physician recommended commercial electrolyte replacement drinks for both of us. I am looking for some ideas of healthier electrolyte replacement drinks without all the sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and additives found in the commercial types. Could you fill me in a little about electrolytes and why the elderly are more likely to become depleted, and offer suggestions on better-for-you ways to replace these important minerals, especially on hot summer days? —DeeDee R., Philadelphia
A: Electrolytes are minerals, including sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, that assist in proper muscle function, maintaining fluid balance, and supporting nerve activity. When you lose a lot of fluids in a short period of time, you can become deficient or imbalanced in these nutrients.
Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration
Dehydration—a condition that occurs when more fluid leaves the body than enters—can affect the concentration of the body’s electrolytes, leading to electrolyte imbalance. Intense sweating in the summer heat, as well as medical conditions such as diarrhea, vomiting, blood loss, and diabetes, can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Some medications, especially diuretics, can also lead to dehydration. The elderly are at higher risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance because they are more apt to develop medical conditions that put them at risk, or to take medications that increase their risk.
Signs and symptoms of dehydration in adults and the elderly include fatigue, dizziness, confusion, headache, irritability, disorientation, thirst, dark urine, and sunken eyes. Especially in older adults, weakness and dizziness can provoke falls, a common cause of injury in the elderly. Depending on what type of electrolyte imbalance develops, a number of symptoms can result, including muscle aches, spasms, twitches, and weakness; heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat; blood pressure changes; fatigue; confusion; and even nervous system disorders.
Moderate dehydration and electrolyte imbalance are often treated with intravenous hydration in urgent care, the emergency room, or even the hospital. Mild dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can usually be treated simply by drinking more fluids.
6 Healthy Alternatives to Sports Drinks
Instead of drinking commercial electrolyte replacement beverages packed with sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and additives, try these healthier ways to increase your intake of electrolytes.
1. Coconut Water
Coconut water is a clear liquid in the fruit’s center that is tapped from young, green coconuts. It contains easily digested carbohydrates and is rich in antioxidants and minerals.
Sometimes dubbed “Mother Nature’s sports drink” by marketers, unsweetened coconut water has fewer calories, less sugar, less sodium, and more potassium than commercial sports drinks. Ounce-per-ounce, most unflavored coconut water contains 5.45 calories, 1.3 grams of sugar, 61 mg of potassium, and 5.45 mg of sodium. In comparison, Gatorade has 6.25 calories, 1.75 grams of sugar, 3.75 mg of potassium, and 13.75 mg of sodium.
The healthiest brands of coconut water are made from young coconuts that are sustainably grown and harvested; contain no additives, preservatives, or added sugars; and aren’t made from concentrate. Brands to look for include Taste Nirvana and Harvest Bay plain variety. For an 8-oz. serving, these brands of coconut water supply 40–50 calories and 6–9 grams of sugar.
2. Cactus Water or Cactus Nectar
The people of the Sonoran desert have long used prickly pear cactus, also called nopal, for medicinal and nutritional purposes. They believed prickly pear cactus was an essential element to their health and survival. That may be for good reason: Research has found that prickly pear cactus is a good source of nutrients, including electrolytes and antioxidants.
True Nopal Cactus Water is a convenient, ready-to-drink beverage made from water, prickly pear concentrate, and natural flavor. It has a refreshing fruit taste and no added sugars or sweeteners. It contains about half the calories and sugar as the leading brand of coconut water while still providing electrolytes, especially potassium and magnesium, and antioxidants.
Another option: Arizona Cactus Ranch makes Prickly Pear Nectar, or 100% pure prickly pear concentrate. As a source of electrolytes and anti-oxidants, take 1 tsp. per day. Or make Prickly Pear Electrolyte Water by adding 2–4 tsp. of Prickly Pear Nectar to a 16 oz. bottle of water.
Both coconut water and cactus water are lacking in sodium. If you think you could be deficient in sodium, which is common during electrolyte depletion, add a pinch of high-quality salt to a meal, or eat a salty snack, such as salted nuts, fermented raw sauerkraut, or a pickle, in addition to drinking these healthier electrolyte beverages.
3. Make a Homemade Electrolyte Drink
There are creative ways to make your own “electrolyte replacement” beverages that naturally supply potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium. Here are two ideas for low-sugar, electrolyte-containing combinations to try:
- Juice 6 stalks of celery (a natural source of sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and phosphorus), one apple, and one lemon.
- Blend 1 banana, 1 cup almond milk, and 1 cup kale. The banana and almonds are rich in magnesium and potassium. Kale is a superfood and an excellent source of calcium and magnesium.
4. Sip on Bone Broth
An ancient South American proverb says “bone broth can resurrect the dead.” That may be a bit of a stretch, but 100% organic chicken and beef bone broths do have incredible healing properties, including being great sources of bioavailable minerals such as phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, and calcium.
Sipping on bone broth is a delicious and easy way to replenish lost electrolytes. One well-known brand that you can find in many natural food stores is Bonafide Provisions.
5. Use a Powdered Electrolyte Supplement
You can also mix a powdered electrolyte dietary supplement into water and drink it as needed. Try Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator dietary supplement, which is sweetened with stevia extract, not sugar. It comes in two yummy flavors (Lemon Lime and Berry) and has zero calories.
6. Eat Mineral-Rich Foods & Drink Water
Marketers have done an effective job of making you think that you need a beverage to replace electrolytes. But you can obtain the critical minerals from many foods too. In most cases, you don’t really need a special drink. You can replenish electrolytes simply by eating foods that are rich in appropriate minerals, and drinking pure water. For snacks or when making meals, include:
- Real salt, Himalayan salt, or Celtic sea salt to provide sodium and chloride.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables to load up on potassium.
- Protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, nuts, and beans for phosphorus.
- Dark-green leafy vegetables and nuts to supply magnesium.
- Dairy products, nuts, and greens for calcium.