Hydration Nation: Understanding The Hype Behind The Era Of Electrolytes

For outdoor workers like landscapers, hydration is truly an issue of safety.

Photo: Adobe Stock by aomas.

When reading, certain lines stay with you. And for me, an eternal truth will always reside in the last sentence of this selection from writer Kimberly Harrington’s description of her Gen X childhood: Your parents will be busy attempting to self-actualize and/or divorce and you’ll be busy learning about the alphabet and Watergate from TV. They will never, not once, wonder whether you’re hydrated.

Oh, how things have changed! From the castor oil of the 50s to the jazzercise of the 70s, who knew simply drinking water would become a major health fad? But of course, it’s not simply drinking water, is it? There are important things called electrolytes and then there’s caffeine, sugar, one must have a HydroFlask, perhaps a reminder app, etc.

But seriously, how many of us really understand hydration? It may seem like hyped up marketing, but for outdoor workers, like landscapers, who are actively laboring in often extreme heat and humidity, hydration is truly an issue of safety.

Signs Of Mild Dehydration

Photo: Adobe Stock by Patricio.

According to the experts at Nuun, who make popular electrolyte tablets (which I use and love), it’s easier to get dehydrated than you may think. With mild dehydration, you may not always experience a feeling of thirst. But a body water loss of just 1-2% can begin to impact your cognitive abilities. Mild dehydration can have adverse effects on the body, including mood changes, muddled thinking, and a decrease in performance.

So what are the most common signs of mild dehydration? Here are a few summarized from WebMD.

  1. Thirst. As mentioned, this is not always the case. You may also have a dry or sticky mouth.
  2. Not urinating enough as usually do. Or having a darker yellow urine due to kidneys emptying less water with body waste.
  3. Dry, cool skin.
  4. Headache. With the brain composed of at least 73% water (some stats have it at 80% to 85%), dehydration can cause headaches and affect other brain functions.
  5. Muscle cramps.

Severe Dehydration

Mild dehydration can turn into severe dehydration due to: hot environments; certain medications; certain illnesses; or continuing to not drink enough water for a long period of time. In addition to symptoms mentioned before, Web MD says severe dehydration can include: feeling dizzy or fainting • sleepiness, lack of energy, confusion, or irritability • rapid heartbeat • rapid breathing • and sunken eyes.

With severe dehydration, it’s important to contact a doctor. When a person cannot sweat enough to cool his or her body, their internal temperature may rise to dangerously high levels, which causes heat stroke. Unfortunately, this brings us back to the 1970s childhoods mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Yes, as a kid of the 1970/80s I actually suffered heat stroke one summer. I had been running around at the beach all day in high heat, having fun and I guess simply not thinking about stopping to drink water. It hit suddenly, like a ton of bricks, and I remember it vividly. From a great day to immediate illness. I told my Mom I felt dizzy and the lifeguard thought I might pass out and had me sit with my head between my knees. I tried to sip water but then threw up. Vomiting and fever went on for days. The point here is that heat stroke can seem sneaky and sudden if you’re not paying attention, but is completely avoidable by simply being conscientious about hydration.

Those Electrolytes

Many of us face mild dehydration from time to time and luckily the cure is easy. One research study cited by Nuun demonstrated mildly dehydrated people could reach normal levels of hydration within 45 minutes by taking in 600 mL of water or a combination of salt and carbohydrate-electrolyte solutions (CES).

Which brings us to electrolytes. We’ve all heard about them. You may even know they include elements like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. But how do they work?

Graphic: Adobe Stock by Dmitry Kovalchuk.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, electrolytes are substances that have a natural positive or negative electrical charge when dissolved in water. (Gatorade’s iconic lightning bolt symbol is more literal than we knew.) An adult’s body is about 60% water, which means nearly every fluid and cell in your body contains electrolytes.

Cells use electrolytes to conduct electrical charges, which is how your muscles contract. Those same electrical charges also help with chemical reactions, especially when it comes to hydration and the balance of fluids inside and outside of cells.

Here’s an example from the Cleveland Clinic: Salt consists of sodium (positively charged) and chlorine (negatively charged) that balance each other out. When salt is dissolved in water it splits the sodium and chlorine atoms apart, and they revert to being positively and negatively charged. Electricity then jumps between the sodium and chlorine ions — not the water molecules — because they have opposite electrical charges. Just like electricity uses ions to travel from place to place in salt water, your body uses ions to transport chemical compounds in and out of cells.

For more interesting information on electrolytes and their role in the body, click here.

Other Considerations

Electrolyte rich foods. So how did humans get electrolytes before sport drinks? They are found naturally in a variety of foods such as legumes, bananas, dried apricots, spinach, kale, avocado, various dairy products, and much more. Watermelon, cucumbers, and  coconut water are also great sources for hydration. But since electrolytes are sweated out in intense activity or heat, we often need a more immediate replenishment, which is where sports drinks, and electrolyte enhanced beverages enter the picture.

The sugar “sweet spot.” Sugar obviously has a bad reputation when it comes to health. According to Medical News Today, “Experts believe that too much sugar may make dehydration and other symptoms worse… Higher sugar intake causes the cells in the body to transfer more water and increase urination.” In other words, it’s a diuretic like coffee or alcohol. However, according to Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RDN on the HydraLyte site, there is a smaller, “just right” amount of sugar that aids hydration. She writes, “An optimal amount of sugar quite literally unlocks the doors of the intestinal barrier between your gut and your bloodstream to allow faster, more efficient rehydration when it really counts.” In 1960, Dr. Robert K. Crane identified the glucose “cotransport,” the concept that sugar activates the absorption capabilities of the small intestine, reports the Nuun site.

Does caffeine/coffee count? Honestly, I always thought coffee was considered dehydrating–until researching this article. Turns out that idea stems from a 1928 study. Yes, 1928. Caffeine is a diuretic (causes urination), but most experts believe the fluid in caffeinated drinks balances out those effects. So while it may not be dehydrating (except in large amounts), coffee and caffeinated drinks are not a good choice for hydration.

Avoiding Alcohol. And finally, anyone who has suffered a hangover knows alcohol causes dehydration. So while a beer at the end of a hot and sunny work day may seem relaxing, it’s probably better to hydrate first!

For more on safety for landscapers, see:

Landscaping In Poor Air Quality

New Magid Cool Work Gear For Summer 2023

How Ruppert Landscape Creates A Culture Of Safety








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