Most of you know that when I was in Paris, I caught COVID, and it hit me way harder than I expected. Luckily I was really prepared with a lot of my supplements with me, but the one thing I did not take with me was high-quality electrolytes - and I really wish I had - because they were hard to get in France.
Hydration is an overlooked part of recovery, not only as a way to stop you from getting sick but also in the battle against COVID and other illnesses.
Today, I'm going to get into some of the science behind why hydration isn't just drinking water and how it actually goes much deeper into understanding the power that electrolytes hold to help and heal the body.
I'm also going to be looking at the scientific studies that have connected deficiencies / lower serum concentration of sodium, potassium, and calcium (key electrolytes) to increased severity of COVID-19 symptoms - and what we can learn from these studies.
Let's get into it.
Now, we all know that water is a critical part of keeping our body functioning as it is meant to. However, did you know that a drop by even 1.5% of body water can result in dehydration of the body - and taking in more water isn't always enough to battle this state.
Electrolytes, and keeping your electrolyte levels balanced is critical to rehydrating and staying cellularly healthy.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals. Stored in the blood (and other bodily fluids), some of the more well-known electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Electrolytes are actually essential for basic life functioning and without them, we would not be able to function or survive.
Despite being often overlooked, they are critical to a good state of health. They are critical because they balance the amount of water in the body, moderate our pH level and help move nutrients into your cells (think: cell food), and move waste out of your cells (think: taking the trash out).
In an ideal world, these will be balanced and should stay fairly consistent, but sometimes these can become too high or too low.
Is this an electrolyte imbalance?
Exactly. Imagine your body starts to create too many - or not enough minerals or electrolytes. In that case, this is classified as an electrolyte imbalance, which is when you may start to see more obvious or notable symptoms.
How does an imbalance impact how our body functions?
To understand the importance of electrolytes, we need to understand that they essentially turn into electricity in the body.
Once inside our body and dissolved into our bodily fluid, electrolytes will either take on a positive or negative charge within a cell. This cell charge allows the body to send signals and communications through the body. It is these electrical charges that help to make sure that all of the nerves, muscles, and organs in our body (particularly the heart and the brain) work in the way that they should. So, if the cell charges are out of balance, then signaling, messaging, and communication can break down.
And when these break down? The body will not function or communicate internally in the way it needs to.
So, low electrolyte levels can be an issue for everyone?
Exactly. It is not just athletes that can experience low electrolytes levels. Low or imbalanced electrolyte levels can show up in everyone, such as fatigue, headache, nausea, muscle cramps, low energy, and fatigue, and just not generally feeling amazing.
Low levels in day-to-day life can start to interrupt general well-being, but when you are sick, battling illness or fighting COVID, for example, things can become more severe.
The reason for this is that, as humans, we mostly lose electrolytes through sweat, urine, vomiting and diarrhea - so being unwell can actually dehydrate us further, and this can make our electrolyte levels even more imbalanced than they initially were.
What is the connection between hydration and recovery from illness?
There are so many reasons that we need to stay hydrated when battling COVID - or any illness.
First up, hydration is a critical player in powering our immune system. Hydration strengthens our immune system because it is our bodily fluids (in the form of lymph) that help our blood and lymph move around the body, helping us take nutrients where they are needed and remove waste from where they aren't.
Water also plays a key role in regulating our core temperature and reducing our fever - and with fever being a key side effect and symptom for many suffering from COVID, we must be able to manage this fever effectively - not just relying on pain medication - and electrolytes can be a part of this toolkit.
Hydration is also critical when recovering from illness because our body is weak - and it needs this water to take nutrients into the cell.
On top of this, hydration keeps mucous membranes in the nose and mouth moist so they can effectively expel pathogens through coughing, sneezing, and breathing. Also, when your GI tract is well hydrated, it can best absorb and use the nutrients that you are taking in when you are sick, to help further power your cells so it can do a better job at recovering from illness and not letting the pathogen take over.
Ok, so staying hydrated might not fight the pathogen from entering, but it will help with the recovery?
Exactly - and it is really important to understand that actively being dehydrated can be detrimental to your body's healing journey. When we are fighting illness, we often get 'illness-triggered dehydration' and this is because we lose even more water (and electrolytes) through the bodily fluids that we lose a part of the battle against the illness (think sweating, vomiting, or even diarrhea),
When this happens, the body gets further dehydrated, the body's pH gets pushed out of whack, our cell signaling and communication weakens, and our body essentially weakens at a time when it needs to be stronger and more resilient than ever.
On top of that, dehydration can exacerbate an already existing fever and can add to the severity of headaches that many people experience with COVID. The connection here is that about 80% of the brain is water and because dehydration affects blood volume, what this can mean is that your brain doesn't get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly. Cue - a crazy headache.
COVID & Electrolyte Imbalances
This connection between being unwell and dehydration and electrolyte imbalances has long been understood, but it has come back into the spotlight more recently, with studies starting to look into electrolyte imbalances and COVID-19.
These findings are fascinating in terms of possible diagnostic opportunities and therapeutic interventions to help reduce the severity of the COVID-19 experience for sufferers.
Let's get into the science
A number of studies are starting to point to the importance of electrolytes - particularly sodium and potassium - at both a cellular level and systemic body-wide level in the fight against COVID-19. These studies actually suggest that low electrolyte levels have been directly linked to disease severity and weakened recovery.
A recent study looked into electrolyte disturbance and risk factors for COVID-19 infection specifically. They looked at two things called hyponatremia and hypokalemia. For reference, hyponatremia is when the sodium level in the blood is below normal, and hypokalemia refers to a lower than normal potassium level in your bloodstream. These aren't the only two electrolytes that are important, but they are two of the most notable ones.
In this case-controlled study, they found that both hyponatremia and hypokalemia were independently associated with those suffering from COVID-19 (in comparison to a control group without COVID). On top of this, hyponatremia was also associated with the most severe presentation of COVID-19 - particularly those who required ICU admission.
Another study linked here, wanted to understand further key markers of COVID-19 associated mortality and health states that were more likely to lead to ICU admission and death. This study was huge and looked at the entire medical history of more than 100,000 COVID-19 patients in the United States. It concluded that those who experienced a disturbance in their electrolyte or fluid levels in the year before they contracted the virus were more likely to die than those who weren't. Major!
On top of this, another much smaller 12-patient research group reported that 50% of the patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 had hypokalemia, and 50% had hyponatremia. While a lot smaller than other studies, this study was interesting because they went deeper into correlating electrolyte imbalances with renal injury and COVID-19 complications.
What is renal injury?
Renal injury is also known as acute kidney injury, and to better understand how COVID can be connected to the kidneys; you need to understand the concept of ACE2 receptors.
The COVID-10 virus infects its host by binding to receptors in the body known as ACE2 receptors. These ACE2 receptors are found all over the body, including the brain, the kidneys, and the GI tract, and so individuals infected with the virus can see damage arising in these areas due to the binding sites. One of the complications of COVID-19 is changes to fluid and electrolyte structure, and these are more common in hospitalized and intensive care patients, and also if left untreated, can increase the likelihood of mortality.
What this means in practice is that those with COVID-19 need to keep a close eye on their fluid and electrolyte levels, as disturbances can be reflective of disease status and disease progression.
So, what next? Is the answer electrolyte drinks?
The first answer is being the owner of the knowledge within this article.
And next? It is knowing that grabbing for the Gatorade is not the answer. Yes, a little sugar, salt and water can help your body optimally rehydrate, but sugar and salt-heavy drinks are not the answer - and neither are sugary sodas or anything high in sugar, particularly when you are unwell.
This surplus of sugar can actually make the problem worse - which is why it is dangerous that so many 'electrolyte' drinks today actually are more sugar-heavy than electrolyte heavy.
Here are my top tips to keep on top of your electrolyte levels and avoid a severe COVID-19 experience:
- I love the no sugar, high quality Quinton I take these daily in the morning - and sometimes just a half of the capsule, depending how I feel. I would also recommend LMT electrolytes - they're one of my favorite brands.
- If you are unwell and can't eat anything (another source of electrolytes), try and eat some bananas - they're high in potassium - or watermelon - high in potassium too
- Add extra salt minerals to your food if you are able to eat. Salt is nothing to be scared of and high quality pink Himalayan salt is the best place to start;
- Drink coconut water - it is packed full of electrolytes like potassium, sodium and manganese;
- Avoid alcohol! It’s a diuretic and super dehydrating.
Understanding the importance of electrolytes in our fight for general health, and optimal recovery, is critical. They are hugely overlooked and a critical part of my day to day wellness routine. I just wish I had had them during my COVID experience! But now? You can be prepared, just in case!
Love Jena x
***THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED OR REGULATED BY THE FDA. WE ARE NOT DOCTORS, THEREFORE ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST.