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.

Advertisements

Organisms Causing Gastroenteritis

You wanted to look at the list of organisms that can cause the stomach flu, well here you are you keener!

Here are some of the bacterial species that can cause the stomach flu and how they’re usually contracted:

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli) – Contaminated food or drinking water, food poisoning
  • Salmonella – handling poultry or reptiles that haven’t been properly cleaned
  • Campylobacter – undercooked meat or milk that hasn’t been heated to kill bacteria (Don’t worry, the latter is handled by the processors of dairy products!)

Some of the types of viruses that can cause the stomach flu are:

  • Norovirus – this is the virus that causes the largest number gastroenteritis outbreaks.
  • Rotavirus, which  is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in children. It can also infect adults who are exposed to children who have the virus.
  • Astrovirus
  • Enteric adenovirus

And two parasites  that causes really watery diarrhea are Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium, though the latter only really affects those with weak immune systems.

Stomach Flu aka Gastroenteritis

There seems to be a bug going around, causing everyone to be at home, sick to their stomachs – literally. There are lot of bugs in this world, but the stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is not caused by any one of them. So what does cause the stomach flu and why is it so easy for us to catch it? Let’s first look at the difference between the stomach flu and what the term ‘flu’ is commonly associated with now-a-days.

Stomach Flu vs. the Flu

Sounds ridiculous that the two should be different considering they both have the same terms, but the stomach flu and what we refer to as “the flu” are completely different conditions. The flu refers to Influenza viruses, which we talked about last week. The stomach flu, however, can be caused by viruses, bacteria or other endoparasites. Want to know more? Here’s a list of the specific organisms that can cause the stomach flu.

So, what does ‘Gastroenteritis’ mean?

Gastro is the Greek word for ‘stomach’, while Entero is Greek for ‘intestine’. The suffix -itis indicates that the disease  is characterized by an inflammation of some sort. Therefore, Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and the intestine, the inflammation being caused by your immune system in response to the harmful organism. This inflammation of the stomach and intestine can lead to digestive problems, which is why you experience diarrhea or vomit when you have the stomach flu.

How do we get infected?

Each endoparasite works differently. The viruses that cause the stomach flu act in the same manner as influenza. Bacteria are able to use the nutrients we have in our bodies to sustain themselves; the parasitic bacteria, however, release their waste products from the digestion of the nutrients into our bodies. Some of these waste products can be toxic to our body, which causes our immune system to react via the inflammation of  the stomach and intestine.

What are some symptoms?

The symptoms are all signs of your immune system trying to stop this infection from further harming you. You won’t always experience all of the symptoms, it really depends on how dangerous the endoparasite is and how long it takes your immune system to recognize it.

Symptoms usually show around 1-2 days after being infected.

Here are some common symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Cramps
  • Slight to noticeable fever (of 37.2°C /99°F or higher)

Viral infections can last a couple of days, while bacterial infections can last for a week, sometimes more depending on the severity of the infection.

Tips for coping

REHYDRATE: You’re going to lose a lot of water from vomiting and/or diarrhea. For children, they should be given drinks with electrolytes in them. Adults tend to have more electrolytes, so they can cope with drinking sports beverages like Gatorade or Powerade. Water can be a little helpful for the purposes of rehydration but you also lose a lot of electrolytes and minerals when you vomit and/or suffer from diarrhea, so sports beverages are the better alternative. Just make sure you drink in small amounts; large amounts can lead to vomiting.

SUGAR=NO-NO: Sugar is just going to irritate you more and make your diarrhea worse. It will not help replace the minerals you lose. So put those juice boxes away and stay away from your soda/pop!

EATING: Eating small amounts of food is suggested if you’re not vomiting excessively. Some foods you can eat are bread, cereal, vegetables, potatoes or apples. Stay away from dairy products for a while and just remember to take it easy on your stomach!

MEDICAL ATTENTION: Unlike the Flu, the Stomach flu doesn’t have any vaccines. You just have to wait it out and let your body work against the infection, but make sure you see your doctor so they remain informed!

A.D.A.M., Inc. 2013. Viral gastroenteritis. PubMed Health. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001298/&gt;. March 14, 2013.

Harding, A. 2013. 13 Things you should know about the stomach flu. Health.com. <http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20568435_last,00.html>. March 14, 2013.

Gardiner, J. 2006. Gastroenteritis (stomach flu) symptoms, causes, treatments. WebMD.com. <http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/gastroenteritis&gt; March 14, 2013.

Parasites

I just asked my 22 year old friend on what she thought a parasite was and, after thinking for a while, she said, “It’s a bug… a bitey bug”. While partially correct, there’s a lot more to a parasite than just biting you.

A parasite is basically an organism that participates in a relationship with another organism, where the parasite benefits while simultaneously hurting the other organism. There are two types of parasites: ectoparasites and endoparasites.

An ectoparasite is what my friend was referring to as a ‘bitey bug’, such as a mite or a tick. Ectoparasites are outside of the organism with whom it shares a relationship with (Ecto is Greek for ‘outside’).

Endoparasites, which is the type of parasite that was mentioned in the post about Gastroenteritis, can be viruses, bacteria, or protists. These parasites live inside of the organism it wants to be in a relationship with (Endo is Greek for ‘inner’ or ‘internal). So, while the host is providing these parasites with nutrients that hits the spot just right, the parasites may repay the host by releasing toxic wastes that hurt the host or by behaving like viruses and killing cells, though those are just a couple of the rude, ungrateful acts these parasites do.

The parasite is basically that person who goes into a hotel room, stays the night, trashes the place, and then leaves without paying; not really someone we want to be associated with.