Salty maple-syrupy water: yes or no?
September 13, 2022 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm reading Next Level by Stacy T. Sims, and recommend it for older female athletes. There's one section on hydration that has me wondering, though. I have no science background; can anyone who does explain this to me?

She criticizes the "commercial culture that pushes jargon-y concepts like 'detoxification'... as a way of selling weight loss and clear skin," to be clear, so she isn't coming from the bullshit Gallon Challenge perspective. In a bit about the water you sip as you go about your day (not with meals, not during exercise) she says that you should mix 1 T maple syrup and 1/16 tsp salt into about 10 oz water. This will "activate your transport mechanisms in the gut (technically known as the sodium-glucose co-transport system) and help pull the fluid through your small intestines and into your cells."

Really? Is this water really better for my health than tap water? I've tried it and it's surprisingly not-bad once you get used to it, but it isn't as good as plain old water.
posted by The corpse in the library to Health & Fitness (17 answers total)

You need salts and sugar to maintain electrolyte balance in your body. But you get plenty of these from food; there's no need to put them in your fluids.

You cannot selectively "activate" physiological or cellular mechanisms on command. Those mechanisms are at work 24/7, and short of extreme situations, work just fine and do what you need them to do without any special input from you.

Drink the fluids you want to drink.
posted by Dashy at 12:36 PM on September 13, 2022 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: To be clear: this is not for drinking with meals. The book says "Plain water is fine with food, because food provides some sugar and salt going down with the water. But if you are drinking plain water by itself, throughout the day, you can end up peeing out more of what you are consuming and still being just as dehydrated." Does that make a difference?
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:39 PM on September 13, 2022

Oral rehydration solution typically has sugar and salt, and does legitimately help with dehydration. It's mostly been studied for severe cases of dehydration, typically caused by diarrhea, so I don't know how useful it is in day-to-day life, but this makes some sense to me. I drink a fair amount of water with Nuun tablets in it which sounds less sweet than this, but probably similar on the whole.
posted by wesleyac at 12:40 PM on September 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In particular, the "Physiological basis" section of this Wikipedia article explains the science behind this.

It claims that in healthy individuals, sodium should be reabsorbed fast enough that you shouldn't need to really do anything special to make that happen, which is why the vast majority of people don't die of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance from drinking plain water. But I don't have a good idea of how many people might have minor dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, and if ORT can help in those cases — it seems like a reasonable enough thing to try, and I know of a handful of people who do regularly drink various sugar + salt rehydration drinks because they find that it makes them feel better (particularly, I know a couple people who find that they get headaches more frequently if they don't, which makes sense, as a symptom of dehydration). Quite possibly a good amount of that is placebo, but I wouldn't at all be surprised if some of it is due to the concrete effects of ORT.
posted by wesleyac at 12:53 PM on September 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

If you are a world-class marathoner trying to maximize carbohydrate absorption, or a dying dehydrated infant, the precise type and amount of sugars and sodium and other stuff in your beverage is important. For almost all of the rest of us, not so much.

Drink if you are thirsty; don't drink if you're not thirsty. At least according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies: "While drinking water is a frequent choice for hydration, people also get water from juice, milk, coffee, tea, soda, fruits, vegetables, and other foods and beverages as well. Moreover, we concluded that on a daily basis, people get adequate amounts of water from normal drinking behavior -- consumption of beverages at meals and in other social situations -- and by letting their thirst guide them."

Again, it doesn't matter, but it's interesting that plain water gets absorbed pretty quickly: "...water started showing up in the bloodstream within five minutes; half of the water was absorbed in 11-13 minutes; and it was completely absorbed in 75-120 minutes."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:53 PM on September 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

This isn't going to make any substantial difference unless you are going days in between meals. You're not going to get hyponatremic or even dehydrated between lunch and dinner just from drinking a glass of water instead of gatorade.

This is Goop-level bending of reality.
posted by Dashy at 12:55 PM on September 13, 2022 [7 favorites]

As much as I am in the pocket of Big Maple, this is not a thing. For people doing intensive exercise, making sure you still have some teeny amount of salts is not a terrible idea. For schlubs like me, it does not matter and honestly I get some negative effects if I have too much sugar and not enough food. YMMV but that is a reason I wouldn't do this besides all the other good ones.
posted by jessamyn at 12:58 PM on September 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Ah, "drink when you're thirsty" actually isn't good advice for me, according to this book. Older women have lower levels of thirst, but most of the "how much water do you need?" studies were done on men, and there are relevant hormonal differences.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:06 PM on September 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

I am not a doctor, I am not a nutritionist, I am not your doctor OR your nutritionist, and this is not medical or nutritional advice.

It sounds to me like that is a DIY version of Gatorade. The original idea behind Gatorade or other sports drinks is that it replaces any sugars, salts, and electrolytes that you may have sweat out during periods of athletic activity that is above and beyond what is typical for you; it was actually developed at the University of Florida College of Medicine upon request from the head coach of the college football team (that's why they call it "Gatorade", after the University of Florida Gators).

But the thing to note there is that it was developed for the football team, to perk them up after games because they'd been sweating and exerting themselves a crapton. And that's also why it's marketed to people who do athletic activity - because if you work out or play sports, you sweat a lot, and that means some temporarily-higher-than-usual fluid loss. Gatorade or other sports drink helps you bounce back a little faster from that.

Another group who benefits from this kind of fluid-and-electrolyte boost would be those who are sick, with a sickness that manifests with some kind of fluid loss; diarrhea, vomiting, a cold where you're shedding a crapton of phlegm, etc. Those are also cases where you're depleting your fluids a little faster than usual, and this helps you bounce back a little faster.

Now - it's perfectly fine to drink Gatorade or sports drink when you're NOT an athlete, or if you're healthy. Like, it won't kill you. It just may be some extra calories you don't need and it may cost more than tap water, which is free, is all. And this is the same thing - it wouldn't kill you if you happen to NOT be training for a marathon or recovering from food poisoning, and you drink some, don't need to. But if you've been in the habit of reaching for something like beer or soda as opposed to water, this would at least be a step in the right direction, and if it gets you into a water-drinking habit then why not.

But it doesn't sound like there's any special health benefit it would impart otherwise.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:06 PM on September 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: > In particular, the "Physiological basis" section of this Wikipedia article explains the science behind this.

That's what I needed. Thank you!
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:18 PM on September 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

ORT is mostly beneficial when other nutrients from diet aren't accessible, however, as someone with stomach issues and severe health problems I find it helpful. I don't like the taste of plain water, and it tends to slosh around in my stomach and cause problems. Just a little something, like sugar or salt, helps it move though my gut better. A lot of disabled people rely on various forms of hydration solutions like pedialyte or liquid IV. Many of those are very science-minded individuals with good medical teams, so I don't think it's just placebo. But the average person may not need this.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:01 PM on September 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have a glimmering of an understanding as to how this might work now, thank you all for your answers. I'm still unclear about if it works in both directions, though. Looking at people who are dehydrated: can drinking plain water actually make dehydration worse? Not just be less helpful than water with something in it, but actually be harmful? Or does the sodium-glucose co-transport system work in only one direction?

(This is me going down a rabbit hole and learning more about how the world works. I am not worried about my own health.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:37 AM on September 14, 2022

Looking at people who are dehydrated: can drinking plain water actually make dehydration worse? Not just be less helpful than water with something in it, but actually be harmful?


Broadly speaking, dehydration is "you don't have enough fluids", and drinking water adds fluid,, it wouldn't be harmful, because you're fixing the problem.

However, I'm seeing that if you drink too much water too fast when you're dehydrated - like, say you've just run a marathon and you immediately chug two entire gallons of water all at once - that's like the equivalent of a flash flood, and it's too much all at once and your body will flush the excess out, along with some electrolytes you needed to be hanging on to. So drinking something like Gatorade, which has extra electrolytes in it, is a better idea; but water is fine too, if you pace yourself with it.

A medical web site I just saw describes it as - imagine you take a totally dry sponge and then put it under a full-blast faucet. It's not going to immediately soak up all the water right away, a lot of the water is going to run off. That's because the sponge is too dry to soak up the excess quickly. However, if you took that same sponge and put it under a slowly-trickling faucet, the sponge would more easily soak up the water you're throwing at it. Your body's the same way - your body can only process water so fast, so if you hit it with too much water all at once, you're just going to end up peeing a lot of that out, and it may pee out some stuff you needed along with it.

But it's not the water itself that's the problem as such, it's the fact that you're drinking a huge amount all at once and overwhelming your system. And if you're doing that at a time when you've already taxed your system physically, that could lead to other problems.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on September 14, 2022

Drinking too much water does not make dehydration worse, but does cause hyponatremia.

It's interesting that this book is targeted at older females, since that Wikipedia article writes:
Hyponatremia is the most commonly seen water–electrolyte imbalance. The disorder is more frequent in females, the elderly, and in people who are hospitalized. The number of cases of hyponatremia depends largely on the population. In hospital it affects about 15–20% of people; however, only 3–5% of people who are hospitalized have a sodium level less than 130 mmol/L. Hyponatremia has been reported in up to 30% of the elderly in nursing homes and is also present in approximately 30% of people who are depressed on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
posted by wesleyac at 8:51 AM on September 14, 2022

Science VS newest podcast talks generally about the over hydration fad.
posted by tarvuz at 7:37 PM on September 14, 2022

Response by poster: The book goes into hyponatremia in detail, including how it's relevant to "drink to thirst" not always working for older female athletes. She has some guidelines for when to drink to thirst and when to drink on a schedule, and also goes into prehydrating for endurance athletes.

Heh, Science VS is where I heard about the Gallon Challenge.

> It sounds to me like that is a DIY version of Gatorade

It's less sweet and -- if the book is right, but is it? -- less likely to cause "GI distress and, effectively, dehydration, because [sports drinks] are poorly absorbed and an athlete's body has to pull fluid out of the blood and muscles to absorb them."
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:15 AM on September 15, 2022

if the book is right, but is it?

I got curious about the book, and the author, and just did a Google search. I didn't see any negative reviews - but that's largely because the overwhelming majority of the links I found were links to Sims' own web site. So I don't know if this is necessarily a sign that Sims is bad, but I do admit it has me...dubious.

I also Googled the phrase "sports drinks are poorly absorbed", and didn't find anything about that - instead, I found this article which much more closely matches other articles I've seen, in which the practical upshot is that sports drinks can be bad in certain very specific circumstances, and that water can be bad in certain very specific circumstances. I have to be honest, that after several minutes' worth of Googling, I haven't found any other source which suggests that sports drinks deplete fluid from the body, as Sims suggests.

But a lot of the articles I've read also say that even though sports drinks may not be the best thing all the time, they also aren't actively harmful, and they are also a better choice than something like iced coffee, beer, or soda. Nearly all the articles say that at the end of the day, the best thing for you to drink is whatever non-caffienated or non-alcoholic beverage you will actually drink regularly. So - while I think that what Sims is saying about sports drinks "pulling fluid from the body" is kind of a load of hooey, I also think that her water/maple syrup/salt combo isn't bad for you, so....if you like the taste better than plain water or Gatorade, go for it. But if you like Gatorade's okay to like Gatorade better.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:31 PM on September 15, 2022

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