For astronauts returning to Earth, adjusting to full gravity can be just as demanding as any of the challenges they faced in space. While readjusting to Earth’s gravitational pull, astronauts can experience difficulties moving and balancing, headaches, nausea, and even fainting spells.
While the exact reasons for this latter effect are still unknown, the tendency for astronauts to experience orthostatic intolerance – dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting, among other symptoms – arises from the effects of microgravity on the body’s circulatory and balance systems. On Earth, gravity pulls the body’s blood and other fluids toward the feet, creating higher blood pressure in the feet than in the brain or around the heart. In space, however, the lack of gravity results in greater-than-normal amounts of fluid shifting to the upper body and head. One outcome is that the body mistakenly thinks there are excess fluids that need eliminating; as a result, astronaut blood plasma levels can decrease by about 12 percent in space, and their total body water drops 2–3 percent. (Under normal conditions, about two-thirds of the body’s water is contained inside cells, while the rest is found outside of cells; much of this latter amount is blood plasma.) Astronauts thus return to Earth in a state of dehydration and low blood volume – one possible factor leading to the orthostatic intolerance that troubles as many as 80 percent of astronauts following long-term space missions.
To help address this concern, astronauts traditionally tried to rehydrate before and after landing by taking salt tablets with water. (Sodium helps regulate extracellular fluid volume.) This method, though, proved inconvenient and unpleasant for the astronauts, as well as impractical in space where water supplies are limited. The high levels of sodium in the tablets could even lead to greater dehydration if not managed carefully.
How it Works
After years of extensive Agency research and testing, Ames Research Center physiologist Dr. John Greenleaf developed and patented a better alternative: an electrolyte concentrate composed of a specific ratio of sodium chloride and sodium citrate. The isotonic formula, containing optimal proportions of water and salts for absorption into the body, provides for fast, easy, and effective rehydration in amounts practical for use in space. Astronauts currently use the patented formula on missions.
The value of Greenleaf’s electrolyte formula is not limited to countering the effects of microgravity, however. Thanks to a NASA partnership, he says, the public will now benefit from this research.
In early 2009, Boulder, Colorado-based Wellness Brands Inc. exclusively licensed the concentrated electrolyte formula from Ames. David Belaga, the company’s president and CEO with more than 15 years of experience in licensing and technology transfer, built the startup Wellness Brands around the NASA innovation after discovering the licensing opportunity while researching the Agency’s patent databases. The electrolyte formula fit Belaga’s interest in a NASA technology with consumer market applications, and his familiarity with the endurance athletes attracted to Colorado’s high-altitude conditions for training made the partnership an “immediately intriguing opportunity.”
The formula is now available to the public as the liquid electrolyte concentrate called The Right Stuff. Packaged in single-serving, 16.5 milliliter recyclable plastic vials, the Wellness Brands concentrate contains the original sodium chloride and sodium citrate blend, along with a small amount of sucralose sweetener and citric acid to counter the saltiness of the electrolytes. Available in citrus blend, wild berry, or unflavored varieties, The Right Stuff is added to water or any training beverage to significantly enhance rehydration.
The effectiveness of The Right Stuff is backed by extensive NASA testing, says Belaga. “Every human has receptors throughout the body, both intracellular and extracellular, that ensure the balance of hydration in the body,” he explains. Whether you are an astronaut returning to Earth, an Olympian, or in training for your first marathon, human physiology and its needs and challenges remain the same, he says. Dehydration can cause tiredness, headaches, muscle cramps, decreased blood pressure, dizziness, and fainting. Severe dehydration can lead to delirium, unconsciousness, and even death. Athletes training for long periods or in hot conditions must constantly resupply the water they lose through sweating and breathing, and Belaga notes that rigorous NASA testing has shown that the electrolyte formula of The Right Stuff is ideal for meeting this need.
“NASA scientists compared this formula to water, to carbohydrate-based sports drinks, to hybrid drinks with extra sugars and glycogens, and this product beat them all,” Belaga says. The researchers determined that the quantities of carbohydrates found in most common sports drinks may actually impede the body’s ability to absorb the rehydrating electrolytes. The Right Stuff contains no carbohydrates, caffeine, or sugar, and Belaga cites one study that demonstrated the product not only effectively rehydrated users, but it also led to a 20-percent increase in endurance.