is it in you?
Last week was officially the lost week. The entire crew came down with some nasty strain of the stomach flu and it was no 24-hour bug. Yeesh. Anyway, as I struggled to keep myself and my family from the brink of serious dehydration, I was ever-so-happy that I had happened to pick up a big ole’ canister of Gatorade mix a couple months back. While most folks think of Gatorade as merely a sports drink, it is supremely useful to have on-hand whenever dehydration threatens a trip to the ER.
Most of you have probably seen that Gatorade ad from a while back that tells the legend behind the famous sports drink. To keep its football players fueled and hydrated in the oppressive heat and humidity, the University of Florida school of medicine formulated a beverage that would hydrate, replenish electrolytes lost in sweat, and provide a quick source of energy for optimal athletic performance.
So just what is in Gatorade that gives it (and other sports drinks) an edge when it comes to hydration?
First and foremost, water. Obviously. The average human body is about 60% water and losing a mere 1 to 3% of body weight from fluid losses will trigger symptoms of dehydration, including fatigue, dizziness, weakness, reduced cognitive function, increased heart rate, poor temperature regulation, nausea and more. Adequate hydration is essential for normal bodily function, from nutrient and oxygen transport to facilitation of metabolism and everything in between. In addition to providing fluid, it’s also worth noting that sports drinks come in a number of flavors. While few would think of this as a feature, per se, studies have actually shown that people drink more when given a flavored beverage instead of water. Of course, I don’t need a study to tell me that. I’ve got a three year old.
In addition to vital fluids, sports drinks also provide electrolytes, namely sodium and potassium. These two minerals are crucial to the proper functioning of our cells. During physical activity, these minerals are lost to varying degrees in sweat and through increased gastrointestinal (GI) losses. Sports drinks offset these losses and help athletes (or weekend warriors) maintain optimal performance.
Finally, sports drinks offer much needed fuel for physical activity. Though our bodies store carbohydrate in the liver and muscles, these stores are depleted during prolonged exercise and can lead to the dreaded ‘bonk.’ Consuming sports drinks before and during physical activity can prevent this crash by providing simple carbohydrate that is easily absorbed and utilized by the body. Most sports drinks contain between 4-8% carbohydrate by volume, enough to have a meaningful impact on performance without causing GI distress.
So when should you use a sports drink like Gatorade? As a rule, if you are exercising for more than an hour or are performing vigorous interval training, you should be using a sports drink to rehydrate, refuel, and replenish lost electrolytes. (Individuals who sweat profusely during activity regardless of duration would also benefit from a sports drink.) Sports dietitians typically recommend consuming 16-24 ounces 1-2 hours prior to exercise, and 4-8 ounces every 15-20 minutes during activity. Afterward, individuals should drink an additional 16 ounces for every pound of body weight lost during activity to make up for any deficits. At this point, many athletes would benefit from switching to a recovery drink that provides both carbohydrate and a bit of protein for recovery and muscle synthesis. By following a hydration regimen, you can make the most out of your workouts without the deleterious side effects of dehydration.
Of course, exercise is not the only culprit of dehydration, nor the most severe. Indeed, vomiting and diarrhea can pose more serious risks for dehydration and worse. When in the grips of illness, not only can fluid intake be difficult, but fluid losses from vomiting and diarrhea can quickly sap the body’s reserves. An accompanying fever only accelerates these losses. In addition, vomiting and diarrhea can also both create dangerous electrolyte imbalances. Poor food intake over time can deplete the body’s glycogen stores and lead to low blood sugars, or hypoglycemia. To make matters worse, dehydration can worsen all of the aforementioned symptoms, creating a vicious cycle of poor intake, increased losses, and worse intake.
During such times of GI distress, sports drinks like Gatorade can meet many needs simultaneously. As a clear liquid, it is what we call ‘low residue’ and therefore very unlikely to worsen bowel troubles. The electrolytes provided can offset those lost by vomiting and diarrhea and can also help the body to more effectively hydrate and ‘hold on’ to fluid. And, while sports drinks provide a steady stream of much needed energy in the form of carbohydrate, it is at a lower concentration and much more easily absorbed and tolerated.
When you’re sick, your weight can provide useful cues as to just how much fluid you need. Though there’s no need to obsess about the scale (why would you want to–you’re sick!), keeping an eye on pounds lost can help you rehydrate more effectively. While not every pound lost will be water weight, do strive to incorporate an additional 16 ounces (above your usual intake) of fluid for each of those lost pounds.
From athletic performance to stomach bugs, sports drinks can provide essential hydration when you need it the most. For more information on nutrition and hydration strategies for sport performance, check out the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.