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Sports Drinks: Are They Really That Bad For You?

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Sports Drinks: Are They Really That Bad For You?

Oct 18, 2013

You see the ads on TV during sporting events, and athletes swear by them. Do sports drinks make a difference? Dr. Troy Madsen has the facts and tackles some hydration myths like drinking pickle juice on game day.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Troy Madsen: Do sports drinks make a difference, or should you just stick with good old-fashioned water? We're going to talk about that next plus other hydration myths. I'm Dr. Troy Madsen, emergency room physician from the University of Utah Hospital, and that's today on The Scope.

Man: Medical news and research from the University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Dr. Troy Madsen: So I got to be careful here because I'm going to talk about BYU football, and I know that's a taboo subject because I'm a University of Utah faculty member. But I was watching a BYU football game last year, and the ESPN sideline reporters were down on the sideline holding up pickle juice, saying, "This is what the players drink here, and this is what they do to prevent cramps and stay hydrated."
So my big question was, "Does it work?" And the biggest question is, "Do sports drinks work, in general? Do they make a big difference? Is that something where we really need to have these gallons and gallons of Gatorade on the sideline to prevent cramps and electrolyte problems? Or is water good enough? Is that all we really need?"
So, you know, the big question with sports drinks is electrolytes. That's what these sports drinks advertise, "They replenish your electrolytes. You're losing electrolytes while you're working out, playing football, running a marathon, or whatever the case may be."
So I've looked back to see what kind of studies are out there, and most of these studies have been done in marathon runners because this is where it really becomes a big issue. The big concern we have with marathon runners and with a lot of athletes with just drinking water, the thought is, "They're losing electrolytes, particularly sodium." That's the big one.
As they lose sodium, they're drinking water and not bringing any sodium back into their system. The concern is if I'm just drinking water and I'm losing sodium, my sodium levels are really going to drop, and that's a very serious thing.
We see people in the ER with low sodium levels who are unresponsive who may be having seizures. It's a rare thing, but it happens. So the big question is, "Would any sort of sports drinks prevent this, or would they prevent even more minor symptoms like cramps or things that may happen just with more minor electrolyte abnormalities?"
So the studies that are out there, and there's been some big, really well done studies looking at just sports drinks comparing marathon runners who drink sports drinks during the marathon to those who drink just water. They measure their electrolyte levels before and after and found no difference. No change at all. Didn't seem to make a difference. When they asked the runners, "Did you feel different?" They didn't feel different. No difference at all in cramps, nausea, and any of those symptoms.
So then the next question is, a lot of people have thought, "Well, if I'm losing sodium, maybe I can just take the whole sports drinks thing out of the equation and just take salt tablets. So during the race or during a game or whatever, I just take salt. I take salt tablets. I swallow it, and maybe that's going to make a difference." Again, the studies I found that I've looked at, no difference. They didn't find taking salt difference make any difference at all.
Finally, getting back to that pickle juice question, "Is there really anything going on here?" You know, the sideline reporter always makes a great story for the national news and for the national media. They're talking to these football players saying, "Hey, you guys are drinking pickle juice. Why are you drinking this stuff?"
Again, the only study I can find, interestingly enough, is out of BYU. They actually took a study and they looked at electrolyte levels in these athletes drinking pickle juice. Again, absolutely no difference.
So my whole hypothesis with the pickle juice thing is, you know, if you've got an athletic trainer and you keep coming to that guy or that lady and say, "Hey, I've got cramps," and they say, "Drink pickle juice," I'm going to stop coming to them. So they're just going to assume it works, but I don't think it works.
So what's my recommendation? Drink whatever you feel comfortable drinking. If you like sports drinks, go for it. If you feel they make a difference for you, go for it. Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of money on a lot of things. Water's fine. Just stay hydrated while you're exercising.

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