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Hydration packets: helpful or hype?

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You may have seen packets of powder that are designed to be added to your drink to help you “hydrate faster.” They claim to add electrolytes to plain water or another beverage, while others also boast added flavor (often sugar-free). What exactly is in these hydration packets and are they good for you?

Hydration packets tout benefits from recovery after workouts to relieving a hangover. It’s true — you need to stay hydrated, but do these packets make a difference?

“You’re more than half water, and without enough water in your body, people may experience headaches, dizziness, and generally feel low energy,” says Joseph Claiborne, MD, internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Methodist Dallas Medical Center.

Adequate hydration yields health benefits including:

  • Alertness
  • Balance
  • Joint health
  • Temperature regulation
  • Waste removal
  • Feelings of overall well-being

How Can I Get Enough Water?

You might believe drinking water is the best way to get enough water … and that’s generally true. But if you have an extraordinary need for hydration — like if you’re working long periods outside in the heat or if you’ve been suffering from diarrhea — you might need a little extra boost.

Fats, sugars, and minerals in water can cause it to linger in your stomach where you can absorb more of it. Believe it or not, milk is more hydrating than tap water, researchers have found. But there’s a limit to this benefit. Super-sweet drinks, like soda, pull water into your small intestine to help deal with the inrush of sugar — thus lessening the amount of hydration they provide overall.

Do Hydration Packets Help?

Most hydration packets contain some mix of electrolytes, such as calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, and sodium. These minerals help regulate the water in your body, so you can effectively get nutrients into your cells and waste out of your body. Too few or too many electrolytes can become a problem.

“Most of the time, unless you drink only distilled water or exercise heavily, you probably get enough electrolytes from your diet and your usual tap water or bottled water,” Dr. Claiborne says.

However, in some cases, you may need to boost your electrolytes. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people working or exercising in the heat for more than an hour drink beverages containing electrolytes for fluid replacement. Both sports drinks and electrolyte packs can fulfill this need.

Are Hydration Packets Ever Harmful?

No evidence of specific harm has been found tied to hydration powders, but it is certainly possible to develop an electrolyte imbalance. For instance, too much calcium has been tied to kidney stones, while excess sodium can raise blood pressure and, paradoxically, cause dehydration.

“A good rule of thumb is to only use hydration powders when you’ll be working out heavily or in the heat for more than an hour,” says  Dr. Claiborne, a two-sport athlete in college himself. Otherwise, drinking water should be all you need to rehydrate. And for those pesky hangovers … the best prevention is to drink alcohol moderately, if at all.

Another “healthy” drink getting a lot of attention is kombucha. Is it good for your gut or a fad to forget?