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Electrolyte Supplements

Overview :

The various electrolyte supplements used in the United States and Canada as of 2005 are intended to prevent or treat electrolyte imbalances in very different situations or groups of patients. They range from sports drinks and other supplements used by amateur or professional athletes to prevent muscle cramps and improve athletic performance, to liquids used at home to prevent dehydration in children with diarrhea, to injections administered as part of enteral (feeding through a tube or stoma directly into the small intestine) or parenteral nutrition (intravenous feeding that bypasses the digestive tract).

The major categories of electrolyte supplements are as follows:

  • Sports drinks. Sports drinks are beverages specially formulated to contain appropriate amounts of electrolytes and carbohydrates as well as water to replace the fluid and sodium lost through sweat during athletic activities. These beverages are popular with athletes at the college level, being used by about ¾ of the students on varsity teams at major universities. According to the American College of Sports Medicine as well as American and Canadian dietitians' associations, sports drinks are effective in supplying food energy for the muscles, maintaining proper levels of blood sugar, maintaining the proper functioning of the thirst mechanism, and lowering the risk of dehydration or hyponatremia. Other researchers have noted that the flavoring added to sports drinks encourages athletes to drink more during periods of exercise and thus maintain proper levels of hydration. Sports drinks can be purchased in supermarkets as well as health food stores; they include such well!-known beverages as Gatorade, Lucozade, Red Devil, Powerade, and Red Alert. Some of these popular supplements come in a semisolid form known as energy gels, some of which contain caffeine or various herbal compounds as well as carbohydrates and electrolytes.
  • Over-the-counter powders and tablets. Some athletes—particularly those who participate in such sports as long-distance running or endurance cycling—prefer capsules or concentrated powders to maintain their electrolyte balance during exercise. The powders are mixed with 12 or 16 ounces of cold water prior to drinking, while the capsules can be taken before, during, and after exercise. Most contain flavorings to mask the naturally salty or bitter taste of the electrolytes themselves. Common brand names include eForce, NutriBiotic, and Endurolytes; prices range from $11 for 100 capsules to $35 for a 30-serving jar of powder. These products are regarded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as dietary supplements.
  • Over-the-counter electrolyte replenishers for children. As has been mentioned earlier, infants and young children are more vulnerable to dehydration than adults, particularly from severe gastroenteritis or diarrhea. A child may become dehydrated in less than a day from recurrent vomiting or episodes of diarrhea. Some doctors recommend that parents keep oral rehydration fluids containing mixtures of carbohydrates and electrolytes specially formulated for children in the medicine chest at home in case the child becomes dehydrated from a stomach virus or similar illness. Common brand names for these products, which are regulated by the FDA as "medical foods," include Pedialyte, Infalyte, Naturalyte, and Rehydralyte. Most come in a powdered form to be mixed with water as well as liquid forms; Pedialyte is also available as fruit-flavored freezer pops. Typical prices range from $6 for a box of 16 freezer pops to $34 for a quart of oral electrolyte solution.
  • Oral rehydration formulae for children and adults. Oral rehydration salts, which are also known as ORS, have been a staple of treatment for cholera and other diseases accompanied by severe diarrhea in developing countries for almost half a century. First researched in the 1940s, oral rehydration salts were adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1978 in order to reduce the risk of death from dehydration caused by cholera-related diarrhea. Since the introduction of ORS, the number of children around the world who die from acute diarrhea has been reduced from 5 million per year to 1.3 million. Reformulated by WHO in 2002, the ORS salts come in packets to be kept in the home and mixed with water as soon as a child (or adult) falls ill. The new formula is a low-glucose and low-sodium mixture. If the WHO packets are unavailable, a comparable form of oral rehydration solution can be made by adding 8 tsp of table sugar, 1/2 tsp of salt, 1/2 tsp of baking soda (bicarbona! te of soda), and 1/3 tsp of potassium chloride to a liter (1.05 quarts) of water. In an emergency, a solution prepared from 1 tbsp of sugar and 1/2 tsp of salt added to 1 liter of water can be used to treat diarrhea.
  • Multiple electrolyte injections. Various mixtures of electrolytes are available by prescription in injectable form to be added to enteral or parenteral nutrition formulae. These forms of feeding are used in patients who require supplementation or complete replacement of feeding by mouth, including patients with various intestinal disorders, AIDS, or severe burns. Basic solutions for total parenteral nutrition, or TPN, contain the electrolytes sodium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium, although the exact proportion of electrolytes can be tailored to an individual patient's needs. Some injectable formulae contain dextrose, a sugar, and acetate or lactate as well as the five major electrolytes. Common brand names include Hyperlite, TPN Electrolytes, Lypholyte, Nutrilyte, Plasma-Lyte 148, and others. Some patients are taught to use these injectable formulae at home.

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