If you’re a distance runner or someone who works up a good sweat exercising or laboring for long periods of time, you probably know the importance of staying hydrated with fluids and maintaining healthy levels of certain minerals known as electrolytes.
Two electrolytes, sodium and chloride, are the key ingredients in table salt and in salt tablets. These tablets have been used for many years to treat heat cramps and restore electrolytes lost through sweating.
Salt tablets, also known as salt pills, aren’t recommended as much as they used to be, given that sports drinks are packed with additional electrolytes, including potassium, magnesium, and phosphate.
Some doctors still recommend salt tablets for limited use, but because of some health risks involved, salt tablet use is often discouraged in favor of other rehydration options.
Salt tablets can help in the following situations:
- when you’ll be physically active or in the heat for extended periods of time
- if you’re not already well-hydrated before an activity
- when taken with water
Your body is healthiest when the water-sodium balance is just right.
Typically, drinking enough water and following a healthy diet are enough to keep everything working optimally while you go about your daily activities.
When you’re likely to sweat a lot
In extreme circumstances, like completing a marathon or working for hours in high temperatures, you run the risk of losing unhealthy amounts of water, sodium, and other electrolytes you need for healthy functioning.
When electrolyte and fluid levels in your body are low
When both fluid and sodium levels have fallen dramatically, drinking water isn’t enough. Without sodium and other electrolytes, your body won’t maintain a healthy fluid level, and the water you drink will quickly be lost.
When taken with enough water
Remember that every cell in your body and every bodily function relies on fluids to be healthy.
Taking salt tablets without drinking a lot of fluids can cause an unhealthy buildup of sodium. This will force your kidneys to expel more of that sodium in urine and sweat without making you feel more hydrated.
Taken with water, salt tablets can help long-distance runners and others at high risk for dehydration and heat cramps.
What kidneys do with salt and water
Normally, kidneys do a pretty good job of regulating fluid and sodium levels by retaining water or sodium or by excreting it in urine as circumstances dictate.
For example, if you consume more sodium by eating salty foods, your body will hold on to more water to try to maintain that water-sodium balance. And if you lose a lot of water through sweat, your body will release more sodium in sweat or urine to try to keep things balanced.
Salt tablets can provide the following benefits:
- act as a good hydration and rehydration method for long-distance athletes
- help keep some electrolytes balanced
- help you retain more fluids during high-intensity exertion and physical work
Consuming salt tablets and water will restore your sodium levels and help you retain more fluids in the process.
The glycerol approach was actually banned in international athletic competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency for years until it was removed from the prohibited list in 2018.
A 2015 study found that oral salt supplementation helped improve electrolyte concentrations in the bloodstream and reduced water-weight loss during a half-Ironman race. That race features a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bicycle ride, and 13.1-mile run.
Weight loss that’s mostly comprised of water after an endurance race isn’t lasting. And losing too much water — even temporarily — can have a negative effect on organ function.
Being able to reduce the amount of fluids lost, with proper hydration and electrolyte intake, can make these types of activities less dangerous.
Salt tablet use can lead to the following side effects:
- upset stomach
- too much sodium in your body, which often results in being very thirsty
- raised blood pressure
- specific risks based on health conditions
Unfortunately, salt tablet use comes with some significant health risks, including stomach irritation.
Excessive sodium levels
Simply having too much sodium (hypernatremia) in the body can make you feel unwell.
Symptoms of hypernatremia include:
- extreme thirst
- fatigue and low energy
- difficulty concentrating
Raised blood pressure with blood pressure conditions
High sodium levels can raise blood pressure, so individuals with high blood pressure (hypertension) who take antihypertensive medications may need to avoid salt tablets and a high-sodium diet.
Salt tablets and extra sodium can make hypertension medications less effective.
Some people with low blood pressure (hypotension) take salt tablets at the advice of their doctors, but they should be especially careful if also taking medications to raise blood pressure, such as midodrine (Orvaten).
Strain on the kidneys with kidney conditions
If you have kidney issues, too much sodium intake can worsen your condition by putting too much strain on the kidneys to balance sodium and fluid levels.
Consuming too much salt, for example, will force the kidneys to excrete more water and sodium to bring the sodium levels down to a healthy range.
When trying salt tablets, do the following:
- Read the full ingredients list, electrolytes, and mineral breakdown.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Follow advice and use tips from medical professionals.
Even though they can be purchased over the counter and without a prescription, salt tablets are best used with a doctor’s supervision.
If you’re prone to heat cramps and other dehydration issues, your doctor may give you specific dosage instructions.
Certain brands of sodium chloride tablets also contain potassium, magnesium, and other electrolytes.
Check the label of any supplement to see how much of a particular ingredient is contained within, especially if your doctor has recommended you limit your consumption of a particular mineral.
- What: Most common salt tablets are 1-gram pills that contain approximately 300 to 400 milligrams of sodium.
- When: The tablets are dissolved in about 4 ounces of water and consumed shortly before or during a long bout of exercise or hard physical labor.
When not in use, salt tablets should be stored at room temperature in a dry location.
While salt tablets may be safe and helpful for distance runners and others who work up a powerful sweat, they aren’t for everyone or for every circumstance.
People with high blood pressure or kidney disease should avoid them. Anyone who eats a balanced diet and doesn’t engage in intense, endurance sports probably gets enough sodium to avoid heat cramps and other heat-related problems.
If you’re curious about salt tablets, or find that you’re prone to heat cramps and dehydrations when active, ask your doctor if this product may be appropriate for you.
Your doctor may recommend sports drinks rich in electrolytes, but if you want to avoid the sugar in those drinks, see if water and salt tablets will help you on those long runs or hot days doing yard work.