Have you heard of electrolytes? Most of us probably have. I think I first became aware of this term with the introduction of the sports drink. As a kid, I remember staying up late to watch the sports drink cooler being dumped on the winning head coach at the end of the championship Superbowl game. I indeed did really enjoy watching the Chicago Bears that 1985 winning season with its punky QB, McMahon, and team to include the Fridge, Walter Payton, Willie Gault and Mike Singletary. The game of football and the players were so fun and exciting for me to watch, but I think the notion of a beverage more hydrating than water really intrigued me. Ok, I admit, the visual of a sports drink being associated with the winning team helped with that curiosity.
This was my best memory of football and my first awareness of electrolytes and hydration.
Now, I have come to understand why hydration is so much more than H20, or water. Hydration is also about minerals and nutrients and sweat and pee (yes, pee!). It’s about input and output, and the balance of it all.
We all know that hydration is important. Even minor dehydration can affect physical and cognitive performance as well as overall health.
Needless to say, our body does not like to be dehydrated. It raises red flags left and right at the onset of dehydration. It makes us feel thirsty. It makes us feel tired, lethargic and not so energetic. It makes us feel dizzy — with loss of balance and with fuzzy-like mental acuity where we can’t seem to focus.
If we ignore the initial signs of dehydration and push it further, our body will then really protest. It’ll cause the heart to beat faster. It’ll adjust the blood pressure and body temperature.
Fortunately, our body is sensitive and resilient and responds quite quickly and adeptly to physiological issues and its internal processes, especially if addressed in a timely manner.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the only effective treatment for dehydration is to replace lost fluids and lost electrolytes. The best approach to address dehydration depends on a number of factors.
If one works outdoors in hot or humid weather or does intense exercise, a sports drink containing electrolytes and a carbohydrate solution may be more replenishing.
Why is this? Isn’t plain old water and loads of it enough? After all, our body depends on water to survive, and every cell tissue and organ needs water to work properly and carry out normal functions.
For example, water:
- gets rid of wastes and toxins through sweat and urination
- regulates body temperature and blood pressure
- lubricates and cushions joints
- protects sensitive tissues
Absolutely, you can always reach for a glass of water, but researchers found that plain H20 is not the most hydrating beverage when comparing the hydration responses of several different beverages.
Our body’s response to how well a beverage hydrates seems to be based on two factors.
One factor is volume. The more you drink the faster the drink empties from your stomach and absorbs into the bloodstream, where it can increase the volume and dilute the body’s fluids, and thus hydrate you.
The other factor relates to a beverage’s composition and the nutrients it contains. Nutrients such as sugars, some proteins and some fat help slow the emptying of fluid from the stomach and keep hydration happening over a longer period of time.
Another nutrient, sodium, acts like a sponge and holds onto water in the body. Potassium works with sodium to help promote water retention in the body. Both sodium and potassium, as well as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and chloride are minerals essential to our bodies for many bodily functions.
These minerals are also known as electrolytes, key elements in maintaining proper hydration. Electrolytes move glucose (glucose is one of the body’s preferred sources of fuel in the form of carbohydrates and sugars) and nutrients into cells and help remove waste products and extra water from cells.
Wait a minute. Sodium helps your body to retain water but also helps to remove water from the cells. That’s confusing! Also, isn’t sugar kinda bad for your health?
Even though too much sodium and sugar is a bad thing, they are necessary when in the right amounts. Furthermore, sugars coming from fruits and whole and multi-grains help to keep hydration replenishment going for a longer period of time.
Hydration is a somewhat simple and tangible concept. However, there is an intricate balance between the electrolytes and nutrients and water that helps your body function properly.
What you ask your body to do will determine if you need extra hydration. Normally a healthy diet and drinking enough water will probably do. If you’re sweating in the hot summer sun or for an active person, rehydrating means replacing the water and electrolytes you lost. After 2% body water is lost (sweat and urine), your physical work capacity will decrease. That’s about 2 pounds of weight loss for a person weighing 175 pounds.
If you’re a professional athlete or swimming against wave after crashing wave to catch and ride that perfect wave, optimal replenishment and rehydrating as quickly as possible is key for optimal performance.
Proper hydration involves replenishing what your body has lost. It’s a balancing act of input and output of the key players — nutrients, water and electrolytes.