It is summer here in the South and that means high humidity with daily temperatures in the 90s. Engaging in almost any outdoor activity will surely bring plenty of sweat.
Sweating is good for the body. As you know, sweating is our body’s built-in mechanism to keep us cool, although it does not feel refreshing with sweat clinging to the skin when the surrounding air is stagnant and damp. When the sweat does finally evaporate, it leaves behind salts on your skin, which is why your face might feel chalky or lips taste salty.
When we perspire, we do not sweat pure water. While water is the primary substance, sweat also contains electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride, potassium, and magnesium, small amounts of urea and lactate, as well as trace elements like copper, zinc and iron.
The loss of excessive amounts of electrolytes and water can quickly dehydrate you. For obvious reasons, fluid intake should always remain in excess of sweat loss. Water is vital for digestion and metabolic waste. And electrolytes are essential in order for the body to retain water. Replenishing lost electrolytes and fluid allows the cells in our bodies to function properly and maintain our energy and stability. Our performance will greatly diminish if rehydration is not achieved.
Electrolytes & sports drinks
As you near exhaustion and desperately need to quench your thirst, what comes to mind as the perfect beverage? Water, beer, fruity water?
Certain brands of sport drinks have done a miraculous job marketing their product to us. So much in fact, that when we engage in any athletic activity (or are ill from too much fluid loss), we are convinced that we must gulp something sporty and fruity to replenish our electrolytes and feel better. The popular beverage Gatorade likely comes to mind. The idea is that electrolyte drinks are needed to properly rehydrate us and improve our performance. This is not true.
Rehydration after intense exercise can only be achieved if the electrolytes and water lost from sweat are replenished. The amount of electrolytes lost from sweat depends on many factors. It is not only variable between individuals, but varies based on the intensity of activity, environment, and bodily composition. For instance increasing temperature and humidity can increase the rate of sweating by up to approximately 1 L/h. It is impossible to know whether you have adequately replaced lost electrolytes. Drinking something fruity is almost never going to make up for the loss alone.
Even the sport themed drinks and those powdered electrolyte mixes, tablets, fruity syrups, and goopy squeeze gels aren’t a good match for electrolyte loss. In fact, you are best to avoid the sporty drinks. In particular those “ade” brands contains ingredients such as artificial coloring, artificial flavors, and gmo corn syrup. Until recently some U.S. formulations even contain brominated vegetable oil, a controversial food additive banned in many other parts of the world. Regardless, the sugar and additives in these sports drinks are likely to contribute to unwanted side effects. You are better off without them. Stick with drinking water and eating real foods.
Water alone is adequate
Don’t worry about drinking lost electrolytes as long as you are eating solid foods and getting plenty of plain H20. Electrolytes lost from sweat are replaced through food, and plain water is what your body prefers for adequate rehydration.
- Eat foods high in electrolytes. This is not difficult to do when eating a plant-based diet. For instance high potassium fruits include banana, dates, raisins, coconut and avocado. Vegetable sources include spinach, beans, lentils and potato.
- Do not restrict salt in the diet. Adding extra salt to foods after a period of heavy sweating is beneficial for hydration. Salt helps retain fluid in the body to keep us hydrated and is the one most depleted from sweating. The highest concentration of electrolytes lost from sweat is from sodium and chloride (i.e. table salt) followed by potassium.
- Drink enough water. Most people underestimate the amount of water they have lost through sweat and consequently do not drink enough to replace it. When the body is dehydrated it does not function as efficiently. The blood gets thicker and the heart must work harder to pump and transport blood through the body. This also makes it much harder for the muscles to utilize nutrients. How much water should you drink? It depends. The common 8 oz of water 8 times per day is likely not going to be suffice when active outdoors. You’ll have to add more fluids depending on the activity, climate, your overall body composition and health status. The litmus test of dehydration is the color of your urine. If it is dark yellow or brown, you are not drinking enough water. If it is clear to light yellow, you are drinking enough. Fluorescent yellow urine means you are probably taking vitamins and are excreting out excess water-soluble vitamins, such as B2 and C.
When food is not available
Sometimes food is not an option. To achieve effective rehydration following activity, you should look for beverages containing moderately high levels of sodium and some potassium. Also look for a small amount of carbohydrate (< 2%) in the form of sugar. A small amount of sugar can improve the rate of intestinal uptake of sodium and water. Just make sure you are drinking more fluid than sweat lost to provide for the additional losses from urine.
Finally, if you are like some people, you need a sweet or pleasant taste in order to drink adequate fluids or to feel satisfied. In other words, you crave sugar. And since the primary ingredient in most sports drinks is sugar, your desire is fulfilled. If that is the only way you will consume enough fluids, then go for it. Just remember, many beverages containing caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which mean they will draw out more water from the body. As usual, nothing beats drinking some old fashioned water and eating foods from whole plant sources.