This summer, most of the United States experienced a heat wave that kept many people indoors or in the shade. Very high temperatures, especially for a prolonged period of time, can be extremely dangerous — and not just for the elderly or other vulnerable individuals. Participating in any outdoor activity, especially sports or physical labor, can be risky even for the healthiest among us. Even as the Summer heat dwindles, the key to staying healthy is staying hydrated all through the year.
As our bodies try to cool off, we sweat and lose not just the water we need, but something just as important — electrolytes. Electrolytes are made up of sodium and potassium among other elements which need to be replaced. Experienced athletes and runners know the importance of electrolytes, and drink sports drinks like Gatorade rather than just water. Replacing water without sufficient sodium can quickly produce hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition caused by too little sodium in the blood stream.
Hyponatremia: A real threat
Hyponatremia symptoms are similar to those of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and are often overlooked. Sometimes people drink more water when they start having these symptoms and end up making their condition worse. Symptoms range from mild to severe and can include nausea, muscle cramps, disorientation, confusion, seizures, coma and death. To avoid this condition, medical experts advise marathon runners to consume extra salt. This advice should also be considered by anyone exposed to excessive heat.
There have been several documented cases of illness and even death from hyponatremia over the past several years. According to the British Medical Journal, 16 runners died as a result of too little sodium and over-hydration, while another 1,600 became seriously ill. It is true that water intoxication is more commonly seen among extreme athletes, but older individuals are also at high risk for several reasons.
An increased risk
As we age, our kidneys become less efficient at conserving the salt we need when the body is stressed, such as from dehydration and high temperatures. When combined with common medications such as diuretics, which are commonly prescribed to treat hypertension, the result is a greater risk for hyponatremia.
The key lies in finding the proper balance of electrolytes essential for normal function of the cells and organs. Electrolytes help to regulate cardiovascular and neurological functions, fluid balance and oxygen delivery.
Recipe for hydration
Ideally, anyone engaging in outdoor activity in the heat or even an indoor exercise program should drink eight to 12 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes during a session. If exercising exceeds an hour, a beverage that contains salt and an energy carbohydrate is far superior to plain water. The recommended concentration of salt in a fluid replacement beverage is a quarter teaspoon per liter. Most sports drinks contain salt, although the amount is not quite that high. Anyone can make an alternative to commercial fluid replacement beverages easily by adding a quarter to a half teaspoon of salt per liter, or 32 ounces of water.
When you exercise, your body’s metabolism works at a much higher rate, breaking down and regenerating tissues and creating waste metabolites that need to be flushed out of your system. However, regardless of your level of activity, you still need to maintain good hydration. So remember to always drink plenty of water to beat the heat, but also up your intake of electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium.