By Chris D. Meletis, N.D.
The human body is about 60% water.1 If you lose as little as 2% of those water stores you can start experiencing dehydration symptoms. This is the time of year when you’re more at risk of dehydration. This is especially true if you spend time outside in the summer sun or even inside where the air conditioning pumps out parched, moisture-starved air.
You might associate dehydration with hot, dry environments. But it’s just as likely your body can be zapped of its water stores in a humid location. People are also starting to travel again. Flying on an airplane or taking a summer road trip in an air-conditioned vehicle can lead to dehydration.
When many people think about dehydration they think the sole solution is guzzling down water. This is good. You want your body to be well hydrated. But dehydration goes hand in hand with electrolyte deficiency. Being deficient in electrolytes can have serious consequences. So you’ll need to both drink more water and get more electrolytes.
In this article I’ll explain:
• What are electrolytes and answer the question what do electrolytes do?
• The dangers of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
• Under-the-radar causes of dehydration and electrolyte deficiency
• Groups of people who are most at risk, and
• The most effective ways to stay hydrated and replenish electrolytes.
What Are Electrolytes and What Do They Do?
Electrolytes are a group of minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. This is important because your body runs on electrical charges. For example, using electricity, the nervous system sends signals throughout your body and brain. This governs our feelings, motions, and thoughts. Electrolytes help cells use these electrical currents. Electrolytes are really a fancy way of talking about calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium.
The problem is that many people develop an electrolyte deficiency. This can happen when you’re exercising in hot weather. You sweat out the electrolytes and your body doesn’t have any more to work with.
It’s even worse when you don’t sweat. That’s a sign you’re deficient in either water or electrolytes. That’s because sweating is your body’s way of cooling down. Your sweat glands need electrolytes to make sweat. The sweat produces water in your skin, which evaporates and cools you down. Without water or electrolytes you won’t sweat. This puts you at risk of overheating. That’s why you can still become dehydrated when it’s humid outside. When it’s humid you sweat a lot, but it’s harder for water to evaporate from your skin. This means your body won’t cool as fast and it ups your body temperature.
Causes of Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance
You don’t have to go out in the heat to become dehydrated or to lose electrolytes. Here are other reasons your body’s electrolyte levels may plummet:
• Having a fever, diarrhea, or vomiting
• Being inside in the air conditioning
• Spending time at a high elevation, where your body compensates for lower oxygen levels by taking faster and deeper breaths. This causes you to lose double the amount of water you normally would.
• Certain medications that cause you to pee more such as diuretics.
• Uncontrolled or undiagnosed diabetes, which causes you to go to the bathroom more often, can also lead to electrolyte deficiency.
• Bladder infections
• Drinking too much alcohol. Not a good idea to chug down all those beers while sunbathing.
• Suffering from a cold, sore throat, or being sick to your stomach because you might not feel like drinking anything
• Using a sauna.2
Symptoms of Dehydration
The first part of the story is making sure you’re well hydrated. Remember that feeling thirsty isn’t a good way to tell if you’re dehydrated. By the time you actually feel thirsty, your body’s water stores might be too low. This happens a lot with older people.
Here are some symptoms of dehydration to watch for:3,4
In Infants or Young Children:
• Dry Mouth and tongue
• Listlessness or irritability
• Crying without tears
• No wed diapers for 3 hours
• Sunken eyes and cheeks
• Sunken soft spot on top of skull
• Dark urine
• Bad breath
• Being really thirsty
• Not peeing enough
• Sunken eyes
• Rapid heartbeat and/or breathing
• Mood changes
• Kidney stones
• Sugar cravings
• Dry cool skin
Electrolyte Deficiency Symptoms
• Muscle cramps
• Dehydration headache
• Irregular heart beat
Brain Fog Bothering You? Maybe You Need More Water and Electrolytes
Dehydration can cause brain tissue fluid levels to drop. This can reduce brain volume. When this happens you’re not going to be as sharp mentally. A study found that 1% dehydration was associated with a 12% decrease in employee productivity.5 At 3% to 4%dehydration there’s a whopping 25% to 50% drop in employee performance.5 Being dehydrated also reduces your reaction time. At 3% dehydration, your reflexes are as impaired as if you had a 0.08 blood alcohol content.6
Serious Consequences of Dehydration
Dehydration can lead to some severe problems. If it’s a hot day and you’re exercising and sweating a lot, becoming dehydrated can lead to heatstroke. If dehydration lasts for a long time or happens often, you could get urinary tract infections or kidney failure. Hypovolemic shock is another real danger. This happens when dehydration causes a fall in blood pressure and a decline in the amount of oxygen in your body, which can be fatal.
Who’s Most at Risk?
Everybody is at risk of dehydration, especially in the summer heat. However, certain people are more susceptible to dehydration:
• Elderly people don’t have as much water stored in their bodies. This means they can’t conserve enough water. What’s worse, elderly people often lose their sense of thirst.
• People with chronic illnesses such as kidney disease.
• Infants and young children.
If you have certain jobs you’re also more at risk of dehydration and electrolyte deficiency. These include:
• Jobs requiring heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) including full body suits, hoods, and respirators. This causes the body to sweat more. Firefighters, for example, can lose water roughly five times faster compared to athletes thanks to heavy non-breathable PPE.7
• Jobs where you can’t take frequent breaks.
• Working in colder environments, including people who spend a lot of time in walk-in freezers or refrigerators or cold-storage areas. Breathing cold, dry air can lead to dehydration. When we’re cold we feel less thirsty even though we need just as much water as when it’s hot.
Four Surefire Ways for Preventing Dehydration
• Water is the most effective rehydrating beverage. But, for a little variety, try liquids like orange juice, milk, and unsweetened coconut water.
• Eat foods with a high water content such as fruits and vegetables. These will also provide you with some electrolytes.
• When you get busy, you might forget to drink. To overcome this challenge set a timer to go off every 20 minutes. Eventually it might become a habit and you may not need the timer.
• Daily, take a good electrolyte formula. Taking an electrolyte supplement that also contains vitamin B6 and taurine helps escort magnesium into the cells more easily to reduce muscle cramps, keep up muscle stamina, and support production of ATP, your body’s cellular fuel. When we sweat, we not only lose the four main electrolytes, we also lose iodine. That’s why making sure your electrolyte supplement includes a good source of iodine like kelp is also important.8 Daily electrolyte supplements are important because we need a certain amount of trace minerals each and every day for our bodies and brains to function and our nerves to conduct electrical impulses.
A great choice for an electrolyte formula is Electrolyte Stamina. It includes an ionic trace minerals blend naturally occurring in the Great Salt Lake to provide you with not only electrolytes but also the minerals that can boost their effectiveness.
The bottom line? Making sure you’re well-hydrated and your electrolyte levels replenished can make you think faster, have more energy, and feel better on the hottest summer days and beyond. If you symptoms are persisting or severe as always seek medical care.
1. The Water in You: Water and the Human Body. USGS.https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects. Accessed April 16, 2021.
2. Hoshi A, Watanabe H, Kobayashi M, et al. Concentrations of trace elements in sweat during sauna bathing. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2001;195(3):163-169.
3. Mayo Clinic Staff. Dehydration. Mayo Clinic.https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dehydration/symptoms-causes/syc-20354086.Accessed July 17, 2021.
4. 10 warning signs of dehydration. And staying hydrated while wearing a mask.https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/thrive-together/live-well/10-warning-signs-dehydration-watch-out.Accessed July 17, 2021.
5. Wolford B. How does dehydration impact workplace safety?https://www.safeopedia.com/how-does-dehydration-impact-workplace-safety/7/8074.Published 2019. Accessed July 17, 2021.
6. Watson P, Whale A, Mears SA, Reyner LA, Maughan RJ. Mild hypohydration increases the frequency of driver errors during a prolonged, monotonous driving task. Physiol Behav. 2015;147:313-318.
7. Wolford B. 4 Unexpected Working Environments That Lead to Dehydration. https://www.safeopedia.com/4-unexpected-working-environments-that-lead-to-dehydration/2/7269.Published 2020. Accessed July 17, 2021.
8. Mao IF, Chen ML, Ko YC. Electrolyte loss in sweat and iodine deficiency in a hot environment. Arch Environ Health. 2001;56(3):271-277.