Fall, 2003. Football season.
It was late in the 4th quarter of the first game of my senior-year. We were ahead by a couple points and the other team was driving for the go-ahead score. I was a co-captain of the defense and playing cornerback. Just think: Prime Time.
Earlier in the game, I had to come off the field due to intense cramping in my right calf. Having never experienced calf-cramps before, I became intensely frustrated. A calf cramp? It seemed like it should be easy to handle, and yet, my largely debilitated right leg sidelined me in a very close and important game.
When I had come off the field, the trainer had told me to drink a whole bottle of Gatorade (the kind that you mix into water like purple stuff) and stretch. He also massaged my balled-up calf muscle which felt like one of those rubber-band balls I used to make in environmental science class.
With about 6 minutes to go and the lead, our offense stalled and punted away to the opponents. This was most likely going to be the final stand and I had to get back in there to seal the win.
Frankly, I probably knew that I wasn’t ready to return to the game, but I was determined to play. And so I gave my coach the OK and, trusting my judgement, he sent me back in.
I felt like Becky the Ice Box coming back in to save the day. Except I wasn’t wearing a cheerleading skirt [“Is Spike mistaken?! Aren’t you… a girl!?”].
The drive was moving slowly and it looked as if we might hold them. On first down, we stuffed them. A running play off of the right tackle. 2nd and 9.
On second down, the throw was to the sideline on my side. I made a good break on the throw and I was in position to break up the pass. But just as I reached to deflect the ball, a steak of fear ran through me as I perceived a tightening in my lower, right leg. The ball fell incomplete. Third down.
Third down was an incomplete pass over the middle. I was glad there was no catch as I sensed that any sudden and explosive movement would cause my calf to contract and severely limit my movement.
Now 4th and long, we needed merely to keep them in front of us and make a stop. The play was a short pass into the flat to their flaring running back. I pursued and had him in front of me, angling the runner towards the sideline as I was taught.
And then when in good position, I crouched low to his hip-level and attempted to lunge forward: butt low, helmet to the sky. But as I exploded up, I felt my right calf suck in and tighten with so much intensity, it was as if someone had clutched the muscle and was ripping it through my shin.
Debilitated, but still in good position, I attempted to play through the pain and transfer my weight onto my left leg. But as I got in tackling position and attempted to thrust forward, my left calf bunched up and shut down with equal ferocity.
With my lower legs effectively rooted into the soil, I dropped to my knees and the running-back easily scampered passed me. I turned to watch him glide by as I fell face-first to the field. And for a second, I laid there, hyper-aware of the immensity of the moment and the sickening feeling of letting my team down.
I crawled off the field in embarrassment. I couldn’t tell what hurt more: my legs, my heart, or my ego. This was one of the most embarrassing moments in my athletic career (and by “career” I mean sports at a high school populated by 40% Jews).
And it was my first, up-close and personal interaction with dehydration. Could I be more dramatic?!
This experience, dramatic as I am being, but traumatic as it was, not only set me off on a course to end all dehydration for all humans on earth (yes, that is my Miss America answer – “Poise counts!”), but it also taught me something that I had long suspected ever since attending Hebrew school. That people in certain authority roles tend to make definitive claims about things they do not fully understand.
The more I was to learn about dehydration and what caused it, and the more I learned about muscle-cramping and what caused that (not necessarily the same thing), I became more and more interested in the idea of original research. The idea of not trusting someone just because they seem confident in their assertion. Of not “knowing” what we don’t know.
And, of course, dehydration applies to things way off of the 40%-Jewish-football field. Hydration seems to be one of the more important and misunderstood topics I have come across.
So, if after the above story, you are thinking: “ok, cool sports story, Hanzel, but what does this really have to do with me. I’m just a sweet, old lady on a motorized cart.”
Good point. Two things:
- Senior citizens, although slow and dangerous behind the wheel, can still serve a purpose
- If you’ll indulge me, I can tell you another little tale about when dehydration impacted me off of the field…
Dehydration in Real Life
I felt horrible.
I was bed-ridden and could barely move. My head hurt, my stomach was bothering me, I felt dizzy, nauseous, fatigued, and I had trouble sleeping. Basically everything that NyQuil is supposed to cure.
It was my freshman year at the University of Maryland. No, this was not due to hangover (I had just barely started to drink. Square!)
After the second day of this – medicine-headed and Pepto-tummied – I decided to pay a visit to the University Health Center.
When I entered the Health Center, I was not impressed. I would have been surprised if anyone in there had a college degree, much less a medical license.
The nurse ran a bunch of tests, checked my temperature, hit my knee with that triangle thing, and then took my blood.
The verdict: I was seriously dehydrated.
How could all of those symptoms have occurred just by not drinking enough water?
The nurse went through her (less than substantial) understanding of hydration and electrolytes. She then brought in a drink for me and told me I had to chug the whole thing.
To my delight (and shock) it was a Gatorade (though, unfortunately, lemon-lime). I gladly guzzled the whole thing. She told me I was going to drink another one in about 15 minutes, and that when I was next able to go to the bathroom, I could leave.
I didn’t quite get it, and I found it quite strange that a medical center would treat their patients with a drink that had over 40 grams of sugar in it, but I did it anyway.
I left feeling pretty confused. Coupled with my above Herculean fall-from-grace on the gridiron, my incentive to research was now super-charged.
If you played sports as a child and young adult, as I did, then you may have heard the following message from your coach, parent, or teammate. “Make sure you stay hydrated! Drink Gatorade and eat bananas. You need electrolytes!”
As a child, I followed along as it seemed like a perfect prescription. I was doing something that was supposedly good for me and tasted great. I mean, a ‘naner and a Glacier Freeze – are we in heaven?
I was only later to find out that my then amateur nutrition consultants probably did not have such a solid foundation in biochemistry, hydration, or even know what an electrolyte was.
I also learned how much of an impact hydration (and our lack of knowledge of it) could be in my life off of the field.
In both cases, it seems, like many aspects of nutrition, these people make factual claims that they probably shouldn’t make.
Dehydration: What is it and Why is it Bad?
At a very basic level, your body is made up of cells. In order for all cells to function optimally, they will need at least four principal things: Oxygen, Energy, Water, and “Ionic Compounds” (electrolytes). For the purposes of this little shhhhpiel – we will focus on the water and “ionic compound” piece.
Your cells, body, and brain are mostly made up of water. Generally, you cannot go more than a few days without drinking water. “Two-thirds of the world is covered by water, the other third is covered by Ed Reed.” You get it, water is important.
When the water level in our cells is low, we suffer from all kinds of body and brain malfunction. Headaches, nausea, dizziness. In the last few years, studies have shown cognitive decline, memory depletion, slower reaction time, and even negative effect on mood. Water also seems to be vital for kidney function (water balance and excretion of waste) and heart function (blood flow and pressure). It may take loss of just 1%-2% of body water to start losing cognitive function!
And what else? Is there any more shit we can pile on to the outcome of this malady?!
Oh, did I mention dying as being a negative effect? Ya, that takes like a week.
Ok, so water = good. No water = death. Got it.
Now that your not gonna go dying on me, allow me to introduce a little doubt into the “truths” you thought you knew about hydration.
False Positives: Pee Tests, Hangovers, Beauty, and Cramps
In this article, I applied to nutrition what Researchers in different fields call “False Positives.” I use this term to describe situations where people make a definitive claim about an aspect of nutrition, while a look through the research shows an answer that is way less clear.
We have this little thing psychologists call “confirmation bias” which instructs us to seek out confirming evidence of our beliefs (and disregard disconfirming evidence). This seems to lead to an inability to detect when we are drawing these unstable conclusions.
And the area of hydration seems to be a prime example. We hear our coaches, trainers, parents, and doctors tell us how important hydration is and how to do it. We hear celebrities like Jen Aniston tell us how much it has “made her skin glow.” We’ve heard athletes like Tom Brady dedicate entire chapters to hydration.
And yet, a closer look at the research shows that many of their claims might be at best, only half-truths.
To be clear, as I attempted to express above, hydration, water and ions are essential to life and health. However, much of what we were told about these topics with certainty (and were certain of ourselves) might be standing on shaky ground.[Quick Note About This List: The below emboldened phrases are not “myths.” In almost ever diet book or blog, people give you the “myths” that are completely false. But to call something a myth is to imply it is definitely false. You are now committing the same error as the person who claimed it a truth. The below are not myths – I am just questioning how “definitely true” they are by showing their lack of supporting evidence or Researcher claims to the contrary].
Eric Drinks His Own Pee?
First off, there doesn’t seem to be a really reliable way to test hydration. From this 2010 review of the available research:
“There is currently no consensus on a “gold standard” for hydration markers, particularly for mild dehydration”
But what about the trusty yellow v. Clear pee thing-a-ma-jig? Seems that is more of an indication of recent water consumption, not overall hydration.
Then again, keeping track of your recent consumption isn’t a bad thing. Just know that clear pee might not mean your are good; and the reverse may be true as well.
Un-cramping My Style?
Remember that little story about my athletic demise? Well, it turns out, that as of 2005 (one year after I graduated high school):
“it appears that dehydration and electrolyte loss are not the sole causes of EAMCs [e.g calf-cramps], because 69% of the subjects experienced EAMCs when they were hydrated and supplemented with electrolytes.”
In fact, in that study, they found it much more likely that cramps were due to muscle fatigue rather than hydration or electrolytes. And, not surprisingly, research shows that: “principally at the beginning of the season, they are at particular risk for dehydration due to lack of acclimatization to weather conditions or suddenly increased activity levels”
Meaning even if I had hydrated and electrolyte-d up, this would likely have not helped! Do you realize the psychological pain that that bit of knowledge would have saved me from!!!!!!!??????
This is like having my hands freeze and finding out my best friend had extra gloves this whole time! “Ya, we’re in the Rockies…” [Well, I’m actually not sure that analogy works.. But it was fun.]
Ask My Doctor?
Oh, and apparently doctors (like most areas of nutrition) seem to have impressively low knowledge of hydration and electrolyte literature:
[More on doctors not knowing shiatzu about nutrition in a later post / rant.]
“Surveys among doctors have revealed a poor knowledge of fluid and electrolyte balance. Measures are needed to improve training.”
So how much do ya think that nurse from the “university health center” knew about it? My guess: diddly squat.
And how about those coaches and trainers? Gatorade and water and bananas are the typical advice. Some even say to add some salt into your diet. Yet it seems from studies like this one that we have very little tolerance for an overload of salt, and even less tolerance in times of injury. And, as I cover below – Americans consume about double of sodium recommendations on average.
As the wise Vance Munson once said of Hitch: “Date-Doctor my ass!”
Will Hydrating Cure My Hangover?
I know your head hurts, so I’ll try and keep my voice down.
Here’s the thing about hangovers, surprisingly, we know very little about mechanisms that cause them. I guess Researchers, so far, have found it unethical to get people blacked-out in the name of science?
“What’s a hangover.”
“It means he’s drunk.”
What about hydration – will that get rid of my hangover? As of now, there does not seem to be a significant link between dehydration and hangovers. It looks as if hydration level plays only a minimal role, if any.
“Although several studies analyze and describe hangover, it is still poorly understood.”
Bottom-line – those “hangover cures”sold at your local convenient store or Vegas hotel – they’re probably BS. Unless, of course, they got them from the same guy who gave Jack his beanstalk beans.
Hydration and Skin Beaut-ifiction-ism
Earth-To-Matilda: stop reading beauty magazines for your health and wellness needs. They apparently say whatever the eff they want.
With respect to hydration – they usually claim that some amount of consumption of water leads to more hydrated skin or something like that. Kylie Jenner, your girl, says: “Water is so important to keep your skin glowing from the inside out. So that’s why I’m doing this huge giveaway and giving 14 people a year’s supply of FIJI Water!!!” Oh, lord…
One of the more dumped-by-cool-dudes women I know (but with great skin), Rachel from Friends says: “Just keep yourself hydrated and use your moisturizer. Hydration, hydration, hydration all round.” Of course, Jenny-dumped-a-lot also makes about a bazillion dollars from Smartwater. So, ya know. [More on Smartwater to come.]
Here’s what the research says:
“Numerous lay sources such as beauty and health magazines as well as the Internet suggest that drinking 8–10 glasses of water a day will ‘flush toxins from the skin’ and ‘give a glowing complexion’ despite a general lack of evidence to support these proposals.”
Some celebs or anti-aging super-freaks tend to claim hydration (or over-hydration) can stave off wrinkles and aging (you know, those inevitably human processes). Yet, the science seems to disagree:
“Adequate skin hydration, however, is not sufficient to prevent wrinkles or other signs of aging, which are related to genetics, and sun and environmental damage.”
Death By Water?
Tom Brady claims that he is the most hydrated person in the world.
“On any given day, I easily drink more than 150 ounces of water with TB12 Electrolytes, and on active days I drink close to twice that.”
The problem? More is not necessarily better.
We’ve all seen the meat-heads in the gym with gallon-water jugs or the people in the office with over-sized-and-perpetually-filled canteens. They claim you need 100 or more ounces of water per day.
Weight-loss pros tell you to drink more water to be less hungry. While this may be effective to blunt hunger, there is little evidence of other benefit. Researchers have noted:
“In general, provision of water is beneficial in those with a water deficit, but little research supports the notion that additional water in adequately hydrated individuals confers any benefit.”
Note: there have been a few small studies indicating possible benefits to “hyperhydration” such as relief of cardiac strain during exercise, but following studies have failed to confirm these results or remain ambiguous.
Note II: a recent small study pointed out to me by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, shows that extreme hydration might mimc the fat-loss effects of fastin.. However, this study was very small and the risks are undecided.
So how much do we need? The World Health Organization recommends an average of about 8ish cups per day – but that doesn’t include the 3-4 cups we apparently get from water. According to Dr. Greger – we should drink five cups of tap water (not bottled to do possible contamination) per day, in addition to eating a green-lit diet.
Is there such thing as too much? It seems like there is. Apparently, drinking more than 30 ounces in an hour (so just two bottles of water) can put you at risk for something called: “water intoxication” specifically by “hyponatremia” (or low blood-sodium). Your kidneys work to clear water for your system and at a rate of over 30 ounces per hour, you’d be making them work over-time.
How bad can this be? According to this study:
“Hyperhydration (i.e., “water intoxication”) can present with symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, disorientation, confusion, headache, nausea, vomiting, and if not treated properly, coma and death”
Umm, yikes. That escalated quickly… Hey, Tom Terrific – I’d cool it on the Aquafina, bro.
Ok – so we need water, but much of what we know about hydration might be Bull. Got it. Before we get to what that means, we have to understand the other non-oxygen, non-energy component of the cell: Electrolytes.
“Ionic Compounds” (Electrolytes): What The Hell Are They?
In scientific gooble-dee-gook:
“Each body water compartment contains electrolytes, the concentration and composition of which are critical for moving fluid between intracellular and extracellular compartments and for maintaining membrane electrochemical potentials.”
Whaaaa? I’ll attempt to translate.
Water seems to be extremely important to both the inside and outside of our cells. Vital to its retention and use may be the ability for water to move through different parts of the cell. It seems to achieve this, like many things in the body, by way of electrical signal (Electr-o-lytes- duh!). Yes, like me on my Bar Mitzvah dance floor- they are electric – boogie, woogie, woogie.
Ok, so the secret potion is water + electrolytes. You need them both in order to function.
This might lead one to believe that the answer is clear: Gatorade! Gatorade is based in water and it has electrolytes, right?
Well, yes, but that is HIGHLY misleading. Saying Gatorade has these things is like saying the Ocean has these things. Its true, but there are far more effective and healthy choices. (Ok, Gatorade wouldn’t kill you as fast as drinking ocean water, but close..).
So what are the best sources?
Gatorade, Smartwater and Bananas Suck
Gatorade Sucks. It Really, Really Sucks
Ok, so it doesn’t 100% suck, but it’s pretty bad. So, maybe like, 98% sucks.
If you are a “performance athlete,” meaning you workout at 90 minute, intense clips and lose over 1000mg of sodium in a workout (specifically if you are working out in hot conditions), you are going to need a way to replace that sodium.
A 20oz bottle of Lemon-Lime (a pretty terrible flavor) contains about 220 mg of sodium. This would be worth about 11% of your USDA daily requirements. Certainly more than water.
But here is the thing – the average American consumes over 3000 mg of sodium per day! This is double the recommended amount by the American Heart Association of 1500mg. And further, we may have consumed less than 1/5 of that recommended amount over most of the course of our evolution. According to the Harvard School of Public Health: “Most Americans consume far too much sodium and far too little potassium.” Gatorade has only about 75mg of potassium per bottle.
So it seems to be a good bet that you are getting more than sufficient sodium to replace what you lose in a workout just via eating green-light foods. Beets, carrots, seaweed, artichokes, spinach and sweet potatoes all have over 75mg per serving. That sounds like a delish salad to eat right after a workout and you’d have nearly double the amount of sodium in that Gatorade.
Now, even if you are “active” – more of a 30-minute-workout type gal or guy, it wouldn’t seem you are likely to have any sodium concerns. So then you have to decide if you are interested in the risk associated with the next biggest “nutrient” in Gatorade…
What about coconut water (“shit girls say“)? Several studies showed no significant benefit of coconut water v. just plain water. Additionally, it’s sugar content without the accompanying fiber is a concern.
Gatorade and Sugar
If you look a bit farther down that label, you might see its most plentiful component besides water, sodium and potassium: sugar. Good for Edgar The Bug, probably bad for you and me.
For athletes, the data seems to be unclear as to whether to not adding “carbohydrates” to an electrolyte + water drink will significantly effect performance. But even if a minimal benefit appears, is the minimal performance enhancement worth the 34 grams of what is potentially poisonous?
I wrote about sugar and the immense risk involved in consuming it in this article, but in case you didn’t read it (in which case I hate your sugary guts!) -sugar is basically poison. Here is Dr. Michael Greger, a nutrition specialist (unlike most MDs) from his non-profit website – Nutritionfacts.org:
“A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that table sugar and high fructose corn syrup added to foods and beverages [e.g. Gatorade] in large enough amounts can be addictive and can trigger processes that may lead to liver toxicity, kidney damage, impairment of arterial function, hypertension, obesity, prediabetes, diabetes, kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.”
For a bit more on the terrors of sugar, just read the rest of this article , watch this video from the amazing Dr. Rhonda Patrick, or watch this short clip, and take it easy on the Pepsi (Fuller).
What about Smartwater?
“Ok, well then let’s drink Smartwater with Jenny A,” you may be thinking. There’s electrolytes and no sugar in there. Problem solved!
There are two issues here:
- Very Few Electrolytes. Smartwater seems to contains less than 10 mg of any electrolyte – this will do nothing for your hydration (especially for athletes). [I mean the bottle even says “electrolytes added for taste.”]
- Apparently Acidic. Smartwater, according to this video that everyone in the world on Facebook probably watched, is acidic. This is not good given the apparent benefits of alkalinity in your blood.
Not so “smart” after all, it turns out…
Also – Earth to Matilda and every girl who is about 30-ish years old: Jen Aniston is not Rachel Green. Stop treating her as such. You don’t know her.
What Bobby Bocher and Popeye Knew About Hydration
So, it turns out Bobby Bocher was right – H20 is much better than Gatorade. Gatorade is the one that, in fact, sucks.
Ok – so if it isn’t Gatorade, then what is it?
The best sources of electrolytes (without the refined sugars) are plants.
Specifically, fruits and vegetables – but also beans, nuts and seeds. Basically, everything I listed in my article on what most Researchers agree are the healthiest foods.
I know what you are thinking: “BANANAS!!! I love bananas!”
Well, this is not entirely wrong. Bananas do have a decent amount of potassium – about 400 mg. Absolutely wiping the floor with Gatorade like it’s White Goodman and wiping the floor with Vince Vaughns face… [“You caught me! I like to break a mental-sweat too”].
However, if you are wiping your metaphorical floor with only bananas – your health is likely to… slip.. 🙂 Aaa-thank you… God, I am hilarious. No stop, no applause (motioning for more). I’m serious. We have to move on. Honestly… you’re too kind.
With 1 mg of sodium, 32 mg of magnesium and 400 mg of potassium, it would take you about ten bananas just to fill your potassium requirements, and you’d be only one tenth of the way there in magnesium. Sodium would be hopeless.
If you ate bananas to fill your potassium requirements – you’d end up consuming about 1000 calories, 140g of sugar. If you still fear in-fruit sugar after this article, this would not be ideal for you.
Compare that to, say, a serving of spinach (about 3 cups in a salad). A serving of spinach has about 600mg of potassium, 80mg of magnesium, 75 mg of Sodium, 150% of your vitamin A, 50% of your Vitamin C, 10% of daily calcium, and more – all at the price of about 20 calories and practically zero sugars.
Or say you don’t want to have any spinach and you’re more of a bean lover. A single cup of black beans will basically cover you in all electrolyte departments (and your dinner guests in fart.) [Actually, this might not over-blown.]
These high electrolyte amounts are found all over the plant kingdom – berries, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, beans, avocados. Like the antidote to most ailments, just eat a variety of plants.
The other advantage to eating these fruits and veggies? They are made of about 80-90% water! Water + Electrolytes – Problem solved! So you can have your veggies and eat them too… or something like that.
Now that you are sufficiently hydrated and nutrified – let’s summarize.
Now – go get hydrated you dry, dry devil.
Still there? How about a nice concluding anecdote:
The day after the company holiday party can be pretty interesting. People come in hungover, telling stories, but mostly, feeling like poo.
Luckily, the great gods of company tradition bestow upon us a smorgasbord of nutritious favorites throughout the day: bagels, McDowels egg and cheeses, coffee and, you guessed it, Gatorade! That’s typically followed up by a pizza lunch, tummy aches, and approximately zero relief from those splitting headaches.
Still, for some reason, this myth of “I need something greasy after a hangover” pervades the culture. I don’t understand it. I feel horrible so the cure is shitily-made food? How does that make sense?
Anyway, having already read up on a lot of the above info, I always look like a douchebag. Typically, I can be found having fruit for breakfast. Devious stares flow in my direction [“hey mama this surely is a dream…”]
When everyone is gorging on the pizza, I typically have a variety-and-color-filled salad. Dressing on the side. [More stares of death.]
Last year, someone finally asked me, in that very oh-you-think-you’re-better-than-me way, “what are you doing? How can you eat a salad? Aren’t you hungover?!”
I informed the person that I was not quite hungover. I felt only a bit foggy from having a couple drinks (well above my nightly average of 0.18 drinks per night). However, I was making my best effort to hydrate.
“Hydrate!? But you’re eating!?!”
Oh, well. I never said these strategies would help you relate to your colleagues…
Until next time..
Justin “The Rabbai-Priest” Steinfelder