There are 4 key benefits of an electrolyte solution over plain water. These are palatability or taste, absorption rate, energy and electrolyte balance.
There is a great study that showed that people will voluntarily dehydrate when working in the desert when provided with only water. A drink with taste will encourage people to drink more fluid than plain water thereby helping to prevent dehydration.
The addition of glucose and sodium into a solution (if done in the correct concentrations) can help create a HYPOTONIC solution which can increase the absorption rate by 4-6 times compared to plain water. The combination of these two ingredients helps crate an ‘electrochemical’ charge which promotes the active transfer of the fluid (via the co-transport system) as opposed to relying on passive osmosis or diffusion alone.
The addition of small amounts (emphasis is on small amounts) of glucose provides some energy for muscular work and the prevention of fatigue. This is particularly important at about the 60-minute mark when exercising or in the hour prior to meal breaks for workers when blood glucose levels start to drop and work capacity/output starts to be compromised.
For prolonged activity (exercise or working) where there is a high level of dehydration, the consumption of water alone can be dangerous as the body’s normal electrolyte balance can be ‘watered down’ or diluted. This condition is known as Hyponatremia, which can lead to confusion, headaches, nausea and bloating. In rare and extreme cases this can even lead to death.
Too much glucose affects the solutions tonicity (Osmolarity) which slows absorption and can lead to other known health related issues. Only small amounts of glucose should be added to an electrolyte solution.
Acute Hyponatremia is not normally an issue for short duration events but may becomes relevant the longer the duration and the greater the volume of fluid that is needed to maintain hydration. The inclusion of key electrolytes into a drink will help prevent this from occurring.
In addition to water, electrolyte solutions have an important role in helping to prevent dehydration and it’s affects on the health and performance of active individuals, athletes and workers.