What is Hyper-Hydration?
I just received a note from my buddy, Shane ‘The People’s Chemist’ Ellison, about the importance of hyper-hydration for athletes. He posted on this topic his blog, ThePeoplesChemist.com, under the title, Blazing Fast Hyper-Hydration for Athletes and More. Shane’s approach is like mine, since he is also a scientist. He insists on presenting information based on the real science behind advice for fitness training, so I consider him to be a credible source of information.
The first thing I thought was that this is a nutty idea from sports drinks manufacturers to promote their crappy drinks. However, with a little digging, I found that sports physiologists have been doing some real research on this topic and have come up with a way to boost physical performance by increasing an athlete’s percentage of total body water above baseline. This is what they refer to as hyper-hydration.
One of the key features of this research is that it involves oral formulas, not intravenous ones. Another key feature is that, as I have learned many times over, water alone is not effective for boosting percent total body water. In fact, you can suffer from taking in too much water if it contains nothing except water.
In a nutshell, here is the formula that Shane presented:
1 pint of purified water
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons of sugar
1 tablespoon of glycerin (also called glycerol)
You may, if you wish, take this formula at face value and go ahead and use it as is. I suspect, though, that inquiring minds will want to know more about what is behind it, what to expect from it, and how to improve on it. In fact, these are the reasons why I dug into this topic.
Sugar and Salt – Keys to Hydration
Dehydration, of course, is not just a loss of water. It also entails a loss of salt (specifically, sodium) and other electrolytes. Water and salt, therefore, are obvious components of any formula for rehydration – meaning the reversal of dehydration. The importance of sugar (sucrose, or table sugar) in this kind of formula is based on the discovery that glucose (one of the two simple sugars comprising sucrose, the other being fructose) acts as a co-transporter for salt. In fact, sodium uptake in the intestines requires either glucose or galactose (one of the two simple sugars of milk sugar, lactose, the other being glucose), without which intestinal sodium will not be absorbed.
Lots of details on the importance of salt and glucose for rehydration are also provided here on Wikipedia under Oral rehydration therapy. The complete story on Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) involves reversing what used to be the main killer of children worldwide – i.e., dehydration. The discovery of effective ORT formulas has relegated dehydration to Number 2 (behind pneumonia) as a killer of children around the world. Lots more good stuff on this topic is available online from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, under Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) with reduced osmolarity.
If is seems as though I am digressing, then I am. However, taking just a cursory peek at the WHO-ORT formula reveals that potassium is an equally important ingredient for rehydration. In fact, from what I know about human physiology, this is obvious. Cell membranes have what are called sodium-potassium pumps, which means that these two electrolytes work together and depend on one another for transporting substances into and out of cells. You’ve got to have them both.
By the way, before I get ahead of myself: If you are looking for ingredients for formulating your own formulas, then here are two sources that may not be obvious. 1) Glucose is available very inexpensively at any brewery supply store (I think I paid seven dollars for five pounds); 2) potassium is available as potassium chloride in ‘no-salt’ salt in any grocery store. Ask for it if you don’t find it (our local store has it next to regular salt, near the spice section). And don’t overdo the potassium, since too much at one time has negative side effects.
Oh, another thing is that glucose is better than table sugar, by about double. Table sugar (sucrose) includes a molecule of fructose for every molecule of glucose. The extra fructose adds unnecessary calories to your diet.
Rehydration and Hyper-Hydration Are Not the Same Thing
This is where the body of research on hydration seems to make a fork in the road. Rehydration treats dehydration. Hyper-hydration boosts total body water percent over your baseline level. Both are important for fitness. However, most folks are unaware of the importance of boosting pre-exercise total body water or how to do it. And I can tell you right now that I could find nothing in the research literature on using ORT, or some equivalent, in sports medicine other than for rehydration.
Glycerin is the Key Ingredient
The use of glycerin/glycerol (available in pharmacies or nutrition stores) for enhancing endurance has been a key topic in sports medicine for many years. The main points on the use of glycerin are based on research that I found in my favorite medical database, PubMed. I came up with 40 articles there by using the search phrase ‘hyperhydration AND glycerol’. The most succinct of these offered guidelines from an article that appeared in the journal, Sports Medicine, Vol. 40 (no. 2): pp. 113-129 (Feb 1, 2010), titled: Guidelines for glycerol use in hyperhydration and rehydration associated with exercise.
Here’s what these guidelines entail:
To increase your body water content by 1 liter:
Over a period of 60 minutes, for every kilogram of your body mass, drink 26 milliliters of water containing 1.2 grams of glycerol. THIS IS A HUGE AMOUNT! For my size (198 lbs, or 90 kilograms), this would mean 90 x 26 milliters = 2340 (i.e., 2.34 liters, or just under 2.5 quarts – more than a half a gallon!), containing a total of 108 grams of glycerol (a little over 17 teaspoons).
WHEW! No wonder stomach cramps are one of the side effects! Drinking more than a half a gallon of pure water in an hour might cause stomach cramps all by itself.
To delay dehydration during exercise:
This seems simpler. Drink glycerol, 0.125 g/kg BW in a volume equal to 5 mL/kg BW. No time frame given. For me, this would be 11.25 grams of glycerol in 450 milliliters. Drinking this much liquid when I am running would mean stopping to drink, which would be fine. Based on the research that I have seen, this would only be important for exercise that lasts an hour or more.
To rehydrate after exercise:
Add 1.0 g/kg BW to each 1.5 L of fluid consumed after a workout. DOUBLE WOW! For me this would be 90 grams of glycerol in 1.5 liters (versus 108 grams in 2.34 liters for hyper-hydration ahead of time). Glycerol is what we call osmotically active, which means that it attracts water. The bottom line is that 90 grams of glycerol in just 1.5 liters of water would pull so much water into my gut that I would almost certainly get runny diarrhea. This seems counterproductive, doesn’t it?
Shane’s original formula above, which launched me down this path in the first place, comes out to 3 teaspoons in 473 milliters of water, which is about 87 percent as concentrated as the guideline for pre-exercise hyper-hydration in the Sports Medicine article. His formula, however, would advise me to drink only about 20 percent of the recommended volume according to the published guidelines (i.e., 473 vs. 2,340 milliliters).
We don’t know how effective a combination of the ORT formula is with glycerin, as recommended by The People’s Chemist. We simply have no research on it. The sports medicine people and the world health people are simply not on the same page. Here is where personal experimentation is required. Specifically, I suggest that you see what happens to your percent total body water using different combinations of the ingredients that I’ve presented here. Don’t use your exercise performance to measure your response. This is too subjective.
You would do better to purchase a bathroom scale that offers total body water as one of the measurements. Any common floor-model bioelectric impedance device will do. I found a good one at my local Target for about 40 dollars (endorsed by Weight Watchers … how good is that?).
Then simply establish your baseline values (‘euhydration’ level) over a few days, at different times of the day, after different meals, after workouts, etc. Then play around with the formulas until you see some changes. Your status will be different from mine or from anyone else’s because your euhydration level, and your responses to any hydration formulas, depend on many variables – age, body fat percent and lean body mass, fitness level, types and extent of endurance workouts, health conditions, and many more.
Muscle Hydration is Crucial
While most of the work on hyper-hydration entails boosting plasma volume for endurance fitness, it is equally important to pay attention to muscle hydration. The simplest and most effective way to address this issue is to supplement with creatine. However, I don’t recommend that you seek advice on this topic from bodybuilding or other fitness sites. The real research behind this topic is phenomenal enough without subjecting yourself to marketing hype.
I’ve written a couple of posts that will bring you up to speed on muscle hydration and how to accomplish it with creatine. To pique your interest on this topic, I’ll just say for the moment that hydrating muscles makes them BIGGER! This isn’t the only reason that muscle hydration is important, although it is a nice side benefit.