Electrolytes

Whenever you’re dehydrated, or experiencing the stomach flu or diarrhea, you hear people telling you the importance of restoring your body’s electrolytes. But what are electrolytes and where can you obtain them from?

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes, also known as minerals, are ions that occur in your body.

Okay… what’s an ion?

Chemistry time, folks!

Each chemical atom or molecule has a specific number of negatively charged particles, electrons, associated with it. When the number of electrons of the atom/molecule deviates from  its usual number, it becomes charged. It can either be charged positively by losing electrons, or negatively by gaining electrons. Any charged atom or molecule is known as an ion.

Examples of minerals that occur in our bodies are:

  • sodium (Na+)
  • potassium (K+)
  • chloride (Cl)
  • calcium (Ca2+)
  • magnesium (Mg2+)
  • bicarbonate (HCO3)
  • phosphate (PO42-)
  • sulfate (SO42-)**

Why do we need electrolytes?

Electrolytes are essential for our motor skills as well as other nerve impulses and muscle contractions (including the beating of your heart!). They also affect how much water is in your body, and the acidity of your blood. They are important because they carry electric charges.

Replenishing electrolytes

Dehydration, which can result from the stomach flu, diarrhea and even profuse sweating, represents a state where a lot water has been lost. Electrolytes accompany this mass of water that leaves our systems, which is why we are told to replenish them. Without electrolytes, we are slower and weaker because they are so important to our biological processes.

People usually recommend drinking sports drinks to raise the level of electrolytes (and fluids) in your system when you are dehydrated, but this really does depend on why you are dehydrated! If you are dehydrated as a result of exercising, then a sports drink is fine. For cases where you are dehydrated as a result of the stomach flu or diarrhea, it’s suggested that you drink an oral electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte® in place of a sports drink.

Sports drinks have a high concentration of sugars, which will irritate you when you have a stomach flu and worsen diarrhea as it will draw more water into your bowels. Pedialyte doesn’t use sucrose, which is the sugar found in all Gatorade® products and most Powerade® products. Gatorade is strictly a sports drink because of its sucrose levels, but I’m going to hand it to Powerade because they’ve introduced Powerade Zero which has no sugar whatsoever, which makes it a great candidate for an electrolyte replenisher.

All of these drinks typically focus on sodium and potassium as electrolytes. Why are these two electrolytes so important? That’s a story for another day.

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Flatulence aka Farting

Seeing as we touched on the topic of flatulence/farting a bit last week, I thought it would be best to further explore what it is and why it is released.

What is flatulence?

Okay, so flatulence is the release of a mixture of  gases from your intestine via your rectum (where your feces exits). This mixture of gases is referred to as flatus. Flatus can be a mixture of nitrogen gas, oxygen gas, hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide and/or methane gas. These gases do not cause an odour though; there are tiny quantities of other gases. such as hydrogen sulfide, in your flatus that causes the smell of a fart.

Normally, adults release between 200 and 2000mL of flatus per day in 14 spurts (‘spurt’ really paints a picture, doesn’t it?)

What causes the production of flatus?

Well, these gases are introduced into your body in three major ways:

1.) When you eat food, you also swallow air. Air contains a bunch of gases including nitrogen gas, oxygen gas, and small traces of other gases like methane gas and ozone gas. This air goes into your stomach, but most of it is expelled (usually by burping).

These gases form large bubbles, which make a loud sound when released but are odourless. All the embarrassment for none of the smell.

2.) Gases can be generated as byproducts for digestion by colonic bacteria. Methane gas and hydrogen gas are only produced by the bacterial digestion of foods in our intestines. Fruits and vegetables contain complex sugars that can only be digested by bacteria.

The gases released by the bacteria after breaking down the complex sugars form small bubbles. When these bubbles are released, they don’t make a sound but it does cause a smell. They’re the stealthy farts that you can get away with. No embarrassment but all of the smell (okay, maybe some embarrassment but quick, play it off! No one knows it’s you!)

This second way of introducing gas into your body also means that vegetarians pass gas a lot more than other people and it’s, well, smelly. They have more fruits and vegetables in their diet which means there is a higher concentration of complex sugars. This provides more food for the bacteria, who will in turn produce more gases.

And, like I mentioned last week, people who have a deficiency in a digestive enzyme (like lactose intolerance) will also require the bacteria in their intestines to digest certain sugars, producing more gas.

3.) Hydrogen sulfide can also be produced by the bacterial digestion of polysaccharides, which is why the small gas bubbles produced by bacteria are so smelly. Our cells also excrete hydrogen sulfide sometimes.

So, that’s all there is to say about flatulence. You can have embarrassingly loud, but completely harmless toots or stealthily silent and foul-smelling toots. It’s an awful trade-off in my opinion.

Cholesterol – Good!

Since we talked about a type of diet last week, I thought it would be ideal to talk about another thing that is often brought up in regards to our diet: cholesterol. We hear about cholesterol, having high or low levels of it, and something about all of that being bad but what is cholesterol? Why do we even have it?

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of organic steroid that is mostly produced in the liver, but is also produced in all of your other cells. That’s right, you make cholesterol. So, it looks like diet is not the only contributor to cholesterol levels.

But why would our bodies produce cholesterol when it’s apparently so awful?

Cholesterol and our Body

Cholesterol is a very helpful molecule, even though it’s received some bad street cred for causing heart disease among other ailments. The membranes of our cells, which will be explored in more detail at some point, require a certain amount of fluidity in order to control what can enter our cells and what doesn’t. There are times, such as in high temperatures, when our cell membranes are too fluid. This will lead to our cells letting  more molecules in than it should be, and can lead to our cells spilling its contents out since it’s lost its relatively stable membrane. Cholesterol helps to restrict the membrane’s fluidity by incorporating itself into the membrane. This allows the membrane to be stronger and prevent strange particles from entering our cells without the proper identification.

Cholesterol also acts as the precursor, or the beginning molecule, for the synthesis of other important molecules in our body. Some of these molecules include steroid hormones, like estrogen or mineralocorticoids (like aldosterone), as well as bile acids, which help to emulsify fats in the small intestine.

So that explains why we make cholesterol, and, so far, it seems wonderful! It’s involved in the production of some hormones, helps emulsify fats and prevents our cells from turning to jelly.

Why should we be wary of cholesterol though?  What role does our diet play in this? We’ll explore all of this next week, so stay tuned!

Cavities

So we keep hearing about these holes that form in our teeth, which are known as cavities.We know that we get cavities when we don’t brush our teeth frequently enough or properly, but what causes cavities?

What is a cavity?

Cavities are also referred to as dental caries or tooth decay. They are structural damage, such as holes, formed on our teeth.

What causes a cavity?

Remember when we talked about how there are bacteria in our mouths, some of which are selfish? Well, two selfish bacterial species, Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus, love to eat the food residues on our teeth. This food allows them to grow quickly and reproduce, which can lead to plaque formation, which is a problem.

But these bacteria, in addition to other bacterial species that feast on the food residues on our teeth, are also responsible for the formation of cavities. When they eat the sugars that we haven’t swallowed or digested, the bacteria oxidize the sugars; they break the sugars down into smaller molecules in their cells in order to obtain energy. The products of this break down of sugars are high acidic. They are so acidic that our teeth are unable to withstand it, and are consequently damaged slowly. This leads to the formation of structural damages and, in the case of cavities, holes!

Brush your teeth at least twice a day!

The recommended frequency of brushing your teeth is twice/day, while its duration is recommended to be approximately two minutes. If you don’t brush your teeth properly by getting every area of your teeth or if you don’t brush your teeth frequently enough, then your chance of forming cavities increases significantly. Sugars, food residues and bacteria will accumulate on the surfaces of your teeth without a good brushing routine. The bacteria will then be able to use those sugars to grow, which will result in the production of more acid, which leads to more structural damages to your teeth.

Fluoride

Remember when we talked about fluoride in toothpaste last week? Well, toothpastes that help to prevent cavities contain fluoride as it helps to promote strength in your teeth. This increase in strength will allow any [hopefully minimal] acid production to have a lesser effectiveness, meaning there will be less damage!

So brush your teeth often, properly with a dash of toothpaste and SMILE.

Hiccups

Have you ever find yourself sitting in a library when, all of a sudden, you start hiccuping loudly? This happened to a friend of mine the other day and I found myself thinking, why do we hiccup? What happens in our body when we do hiccup?

What is hiccuping and how does it work? 

Hiccuping results from uncontrollable spasms of the muscles that help us breathe. These muscles include our diaphragm (which is considered the major player of this response), the muscles between our ribs (intercostal muscles) and the muscles in our neck1. Our diaphragm sits under our lungs and above our stomach. Hiccuping forces us to inhale sharply and can also be referred to as singultus, which is a Latin term which is translated to mean ‘the act of catching one’s breath while sobbing’2.

The ‘hic’ sound that you hear when you hiccup is caused by diaphragm spasms. When your diaphragm contracts arbitrarily, it causes you to inhale; however, this inhalation is very short due to the rapid closing of a structure called the glottis3The glottis is the space between your vocal cords and it is its closing that causes the ‘hic’ sound.

Why do we hiccup?

It’s not really known exactly why we hiccup but here are some theories4:

  • Some scientists believe that we hiccup due to disruptions of the nervous system that leads to respiratory muscles (the muscles that help us breathe), which may be why some people hiccup when they’re upset, nervous, excited or exposed to different temperatures – this makes sense because we know the nervous system is directly related to all of these things!
  • For those everyday, arbitrary hiccups, it’s believed that overeating, drinking too much or eating/drinking too quickly are the causes. When you eat or drink too much, or too fast, your stomach expands to accommodate. Since your stomach sits below your diaphragm, its expansion will irritate the diaphragm, which will then contract and cause you to inhale.

Either way, your respiratory muscles are essentially acting out, causing you to rapidly inhale. The best way to stop hiccuping is likely to get in control of your breathing pattern, which is why holding your breath seems to work3!

1. Whitelaw, William A. 2007. What causes hiccups. ScientificAmerican.com. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-causes-hiccups&gt; January 30, 2013.

2. Wilkes, Garry. 2012. Hiccups. http://reference.medscape.com/ <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/775746-overview&gt; January 30, 2013.

3. Murphy, Glenn. 2007. Why do we get hiccups and how do you stop them. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/ <http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/onlinestuff/snot/why_do_we_get_hiccups_and_how_do_you_stop_them.aspx&gt; January 30, 2013.

4. n.p. 2004. Why do we hiccup. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/ <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/7623.php&gt; January 30, 2013.