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Natural Alternatives to Sports Drinks

Natural Alternatives to Sports Drinks

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Sports drinks are a big part of athletics and business worldwide.

Whenever you watch sports, you may see athletes drinking brightly colored beverages before, during, or after the competition. Or if you practice sports, you may even use them yourself.

Many people believe that these beverages improve exercise performance. Others state that this belief comes from good marketing and you should stick with water. Let’s get into this…

As you must know, water makes up most of your body weight and is critical for your body’s proper functioning.

Your body continuously loses water through urine, sweat, feces, your skin, and the air you exhale. These losses must be replaced to promote good health and exercise performance. So, it’s recommended that you hydrate yourself regularly throughout the day.

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Sports drinks are advertised to provide glucose, fluids, and electrolytes lost during intense exercise and enhance endurance.

There are different options according to different demands. Some brands contain B vitamins associated with increased energy. Others contain carbohydrates in the form of sugar (e.g., glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose), or no sugar at all and are flavored with low-calorie sweeteners (e.g., aspartame, saccharin, sucralose).

The drinks contain a specific amount of sugar and electrolytes to allow quick hydration and absorption. Plus, they offer a nutrient refill for those who practice high-intensity exercise that lasts an hour or more.

Cold sports drinks

What are the main ingredients in sports drinks? 

Sports drinks contain mostly water, carbs, and electrolytes believed to improve performance.

The carbs in these drinks are usually in the form of sugars like glucose, sucrose, and fructose.

There are also options with low or zero carbs due to the demand of consumers who don’t want the extra calories – only the water and electrolytes.  

One of the reasons for their popularity is that sports drinks contain electrolytes or minerals that have an electrical charge, which is essential for your body’s normal operation. The most common electrolytes you can find in these drinks are sodium and potassium.

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Benefits of Sports Drinks

Each of the main components of sports drinks – water, carbs, and electrolytes – is important for different aspects of exercise performance.  

Sports drinks were designed to provide these three important ingredients to improve exercise performance or recovery.

  • They replace electrolytes. Your sweat contains lost electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, phosphate, calcium, magnesium, and chlorine. When they become too low from excessive sweating, you may feel nausea, muscle cramps, dizziness, and confusion. Plain water does not replace electrolytes, which is why sports drinks are a popular choice. However, if you exercise for a short period (less than an hour) this is not something to consider.
  • They replace lost fluids. People who dislike drinking plain water may find it easier to reach their fluid intake goals with sports drinks, as they are flavored beverages. Depending on the intensity of the exercise and how much you sweat, you need 1 ½ cups to 4 cups of liquid for every hour of exercise. 

Studies have been conducted to analyze the effectiveness and benefits of sports drinks for consumers who practice:

  • Short-duration exercise. The benefits are not fully clear. Despite the existing research on intense cycling or running for 30-60 minutes that show that sports drinks benefit exercise performance, the participants were trained athletes performing intense exercise. There is no strong evidence supporting the benefits of sports drinks for short-duration activities, such as jumping, sprinting, and agility exercises.
Group of people exercising outdoors.
  • Team sports or intermittent exercise. Sports drinks are popular in team sports like soccer, basketball, and football. All of these include intermittent exercise, alternating between intense exercise and rest. Research shows that ingesting carbohydrate drinks, including sports drinks, can reduce fatigue and improve performance in soccer and rugby.
Person playing soccer.
  • Prolonged continuous exercise. This type of exercise is performed with no rest periods. Studies show performance improvements when consuming sports drinks. Athletes who practice team sports similar to prolonged continuous exercise, like soccer, are most likely to benefit from these beverages. The cause of this may be the fact that the drinks provide carbs for energy as your body’s stores reduce and help prevent dehydration.
Group of people cycling on exercise bikes.

Can sports drinks benefit everyone? – Possible health risks

Sports drinks are unnecessary unless you are practicing strenuous exercise for a long period. Otherwise, they can cause more harm than good. Drinking them regularly when they are not needed can cause health risks.

Some of the reasons for this are:  

  • They contain a high number of calories that may affect weight loss. If you are trying to maintain or lose weight, it is important to consider energy balance or the balance between the calories you consume and burn. To lose weight, the number of calories you burn must be higher than the ones you consume. You should avoid consuming unnecessary calories that could get in the way of your weight loss goal.
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  • They contain additional sodium content. Excessive sodium raises blood pressure and can put you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
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  • They can cause hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is a serious condition in which your body has a low sodium level caused by dehydration and overhydration. Studies done by Harvard University found that at least 13% of marathon runners have hyponatremia due to excessive drinking of sports drinks than those who only drink water.
  • They cause erosion of the teeth. Even more than sodas, sports drinks contain acid that causes erosion of the teeth – and the damage is irreversible.
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  • They may slow down hydration. The debate between sports drinks and water and which is the best option is ongoing. Big companies claim that sports drinks help prevent athletes from becoming dehydrated, but studies prove that their high-sugar content can slow down hydration.

Alternatives to Sports Drinks

Most of the marketing of sports drinks promotes their ability of hydration by replacing water and electrolytes lost during sweat.

The amount of your sweat depends on many factors, including the duration and intensity of your exercise, your training level, and your environment - it’s recommended that athletes do not lose more than 2-3% of their body weight through sweat during exercise.

Man sweating while exercising.

A study has compared water and sports drinks along with eleven other beverages to see how well they can hydrate your body. Researchers have found that milk, orange juice, and an oral rehydration solution offer you the highest amount of hydration.

Oral rehydration solutions were created to cause fluid retention and contain higher levels of sodium and potassium than normal sports drinks.

The study demonstrated that several drinks can provide hydration throughout the day. Click here to check it out.

Despite hydration, most people choose sports drinks over water because of their electrolytes. But what if there are healthier options? 

Electrolytes are minerals that conduct an electrical charge when mixed with water. Their goal is to regulate many of your body’s essential functions, like nerve signaling, pH balance, muscle contraction, and hydration.

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The primary electrolytes that your body uses are sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, chloride, and bicarbonate.

Serious health complications can arise if your electrolyte levels become too high or too low. So, given the daily electrolyte and fluid natural losses, it becomes necessary to regularly replenish them with a mineral-rich diet.

Here are a few electrolyte-rich alternatives to sports drinks:

  • Coconut water. This is the clear liquid found in coconuts. For some years, it has become increasingly popular on the worldwide market. This liquid is naturally low in sugar and calories and contains a variety of electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. It contains 46 calories per cup (237 ml), making it healthier than sodas, juices, and traditional sports drinks.
Coconut water.
  • Milk. It contains a rich supply of electrolytes such as calcium, sodium, and potassium. It also provides a healthy combination of carbs and protein, which helps you refuel and promote muscle tissue repair after practicing exercise. Research illustrates that milk is a better post-workout beverage than many commercial sports drinks.
Glass of milk.
  • Watermelon water (and other fruit juices). One cup (237ml) of 100% of the juice that comes from a watermelon provides almost 6% of the daily value for potassium and magnesium while offering small amounts of other electrolytes like calcium and phosphorus. It also contains L-citrulline, an amino acid that may enhance oxygen transport and athletic performance. You may also use other fruit juices that are a good source of electrolytes, like orange and tart cherry juice – both contain potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. 100% fruit juices are a great source of vitamins and antioxidants. However, fruit juices are typically low in sodium. So, if you’re sweating for a prolonged time and use fruit juices to rehydrate, you increase the risk of developing low sodium blood levels. As a solution, some people mix their fruit juices with salt and water and use them as sports drinks.
Watermelon slices.
  • Smoothies. Smoothies are a great way to mix several electrolyte-rich foods into one drink. You may use whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and dairy products – all of which are excellent sources of electrolytes. Some of their benefits are that they are easy to digest and delicious. If you include some protein-rich additions, they can serve as a great post-workout recovery drink, as they will not only replace lost electrolytes but also support muscle tissue growth.
Fruit smoothies.

Click here for more information on this.

Sports Drinks vs. Energy Drinks

According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) classification system, there aren’t differences between these two types of drinks. Beverage companies have the power to use the names as marketing terms to target sales and attract consumers. This is not to say that they are the same and contain the same content – they don’t. Every brand has its unique content – they are simply not classified as different in FDA’s system.

This is important because the classification of a product as a food or a supplement determines which laws apply to it, and what information companies must provide to consumers.

Research shows that it is safest to avoid energy products altogether. Energy drinks contain high levels of sugar and caffeine (or another stimulant) that can be detrimental to hydration and cause damaging health effects, such as skin flushing, increased heart rate, or sweating from vitamin overdose.

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Sports drinks are typically safer than energy drinks, but you must still examine the ingredient list closely to check for the sugar, carbohydrate, and electrolyte content.

MayoClinic states that water is generally the best way to replace lost fluids. But, if you are heavily exercising for more than 60 minutes, sports drinks may deliver important nutrients to help maintain your body’s electrolyte balance.  

Watch the video below to know what to look for in a sports drink.

Mayo Clinic video on what to look for in a sports drink.

The worldwide consumption of these two types of beverages has been increasing rapidly. This forms a concern due to the potential health risks from excessive use of energy and sports drinks, some of which were already stated above.

Children and Sports Drinks

Studies have revealed the benefits of sports drinks in adult athletes, but concerning children, research is lacking.

Researchers have found it difficult to establish the needed amount of exercise time for the drinks to be useful because of the highly variable rates of their sweat.

However, it has been suggested that with monitoring by coaches or parents, these drinks may help prevent dehydration in children and adolescents if they exercise vigorously for more than one hour. But again, the drinks are unnecessary for children and adolescents engaged in routine or play-based physical activity.

Little girl exercising while adult looks after her.

A survey by Cardiff University School of Dentistry showed a high proportion of 12 to 14-year-old children consuming high-sugar sports drinks unnecessarily.

The Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine (FSEM) concluded that the regular consumption of sports drinks by children may have detrimental effects on their health, like increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and the erosion of tooth enamel.

Bottom line

A sports drink may be used by people engaging in physical activity of high intensity for more than 60 minutes, especially if they sweat heavily. For the young, a balanced diet, snacks as needed, and adequate water are encouraged to enhance physical and mental performance.

Sports beverages provide benefits in specific types of exercise - the clearest benefits are seen in prolonged exercise without rest.

Despite their popularity, sports drinks are unnecessary for most people and can cause health issues if used excessively.


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