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Sweat Sensor Will Soon Be Able to Tell if You're Dehydrated

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

sweat wearable monitor

Story at-a-glance -

  • Jason Heikenfeld from the University of Cincinnati now holds a patent on technology to measure multiple levels of chemicals in your sweat, using a small flexible, wearable patch, which may be used to detect dehydration or to noninvasively diagnose diabetes, mental health conditions or cystic fibrosis
  • Although the sensor immediately measures glucose in sweat, excretion of glucose lags by 30 to 60 minutes behind blood glucose measurements, which means the sensor is not of value to diabetics to monitor their blood glucose, but may be a noninvasive means of early detection of diabetes
  • The wearable device is able to monitor cortisol levels in sweat, an indicator physicians may use as early detection in those they suspect suffer mental health conditions, including schizophrenia
  • Sweat-based devices also assist in monitoring your hydration levels, vital to your optimal health, cognitive and athletic performance. As Dr. Zach Bush discusses, hydration of your cells is vital and achieved by paying attention to strategies affecting electrical charges across membranes, such as dietary fiber, electrolytes and reducing EMF toxicity

Although sometimes used interchangeably, personalized health care and personalized medicine are different. Personalized medicine refers to the use of genetics in order to develop treatment specific to a condition, such as defining tumor markers to guide cancer therapy.

Personalized health care is a broader term that includes personalized medicine but also other biological information to help predict risk or how you may respond to treatment. Both are now receiving a great deal of attention as scientists struggle to develop treatment plans with a greater rate of success.1

Although the objective is to improve the quality of care and reduce the cost at the same time, as with many costly processes, prevention continues to be the best medicine. Wearable sweat sensors have begun paving the way for real-time body chemistry analysis over the past several years.

Wearable Sensor Designs Rapidly Improving

In early 2016, the journal Nature2 carried an article highlighting a unique device developed by a materials scientist at the University of California Berkeley, who created a small sensor to read the molecular composition of sweat. The sensor would then send the results to a smartphone app.

The scientist designed the sensor to be incorporated into wristbands and headbands enabling an early warning for the wearer. This sensor represented an advancement over others that only had the ability to measure one component of sweat at a time and could not transmit the results.

Before this, the sensors had to be removed for chemical analysis, which severely impacted real-time measurements. This wearable technology detects glucose, lactate, sodium and potassium, and body temperature when in contact with sweat.

Jason Heikenfeld from the University of Cincinnati called this an impressive achievement as the sensor miniaturized electronics into something that could wrap around the wrist.

By late 2018, Heikenfeld was issued a patent on a wearable sweat sensor capable of electronically correlating two or more measurements. The company, Eccrine Systems Inc., uses the invention to correlate data derived from sweat sensor devices to define pharmacokinetic profiles of medications excreted in stimulated sweat. Eccrine System’s CEO, Gavi Begtrup, Ph.D., says:3

"You can't devise an on-body device to derive a sweat pharmacokinetic [PK] curve, and then correlate that curve to a drug's blood PK curve, without using this invention. This is a big deal given the estimated $500 billion annual health care cost of nonoptimized medication therapy, a significant portion of which can result from individual PK differences that cause failed treatment outcomes."

New Sweat Sensors Now Measure Multiple Chemicals

The development of a new device was announced in the journal Science Advances,4 providing real-time information on sweat rate, levels of chloride, glucose, lactate and pH. Using these levels, physicians may find an indication the wearer has diabetes or cystic fibrosis, is dehydrated or has low oxygen levels.

The new device is wireless and battery-free, improving the ability to monitor and diagnose problems, and is contained in a small soft patch. Martin Kaltenbrunner, an engineering professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria, who was not involved in the research, commented,5 “This looks like the first version in which they integrated all of it in one device. The level of technology that is in this paper is very, very advanced.”

The device works by channeling sweat through minute holes at the base where a complex network of microchannels route the liquid into tiny reservoirs. Each reservoir has a sensor that reacts with a chemical in the sweat. There is no power supply and nothing penetrates the skin.

The scientists designed the system to be versatile in order to track one chemical or several, over time. In other words, it may be set to track the level of lactate in a marathon runner and applies so closely to the skin even swimmers may track their performance. Since the channel system can be separated from the electronics, it increases the life span of the device.

At this point, teams are focused on developing a means of producing these sweat-based sensors at a lower cost in order to be functional for physicians and patients. Testing is already underway to determine the reliability of using the device to screen for cystic fibrosis. At this time the sensor is in the late stages of a clinical trial and plans are to apply for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Correlations Not yet Found for Immediate Blood Glucose Reading

The potential to use sweat to monitor blood glucose levels in the nearly 30 million people with diabetes in America would reduce the need for invasive monitoring. The most advanced wearable sensor to date is a soft patch that relies on tiny needles to monitor blood glucose.

Since those with diabetes may significantly, and nearly immediately, affect their blood sugar with the foods they eat, researchers have been searching for a device to use with sweat. However, at this time they have been unable to define a metric reflecting an immediate blood glucose reading.6

The newest sweat-based device measures glucose in sweat, but the results often reflect measurements 30 to 60 minutes later than real time. This delay is too long to help those who may be experiencing severe hypo- or hyperglycemia, but may be used to help screen for diabetes. John Rogers, a biomedical engineer at Northwestern University in Illinois, is the key architect of the device.

Rogers is also working with collaborators to develop sensors to measure urea and creatinine in order to determine kidney function and potentially chart progress of those undergoing stroke rehabilitation. Other laboratories are working to develop sensors to measure chemicals important in mental health conditions, including depression.

Rogers is optimistic of how quickly his device will be integrated into everyday use. In 2016 he described an earlier version of this current device that used colorimetric analysis and within weeks he was talking with Gatorade to adapt the technology.7

Measurement of Everyday Stress Hormone Helps Identify Numerous Issues

Wearable biosensors are also a way to noninvasively monitor cortisol secretion.8 Using sweat and a precise sample delivery, devices are successfully able to measure micro fluids with relative accuracy.9 Cortisol is a hormone released by your adrenal glands in a fight or flight response to stress.10

However, when released chronically it puts your health at risk. The natural stress response increases your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy, all necessary during times of physical challenge. But when this system goes haywire, it increases your risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and weight gain, and memory and concentration problems.11

Some call cortisol “Public Enemy No. 1”12 as it's also linked with interference with learning and memory, lowering your immune function and reducing your bone density. Each of these factors may contribute to lowering your life expectancy.

Interestingly, researchers at the Psychiatric Neuroscience Lab at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine demonstrated those with psychosis produce lower than average amounts of cortisol after waking in the morning.13

This indicates there is a biomarker easily measured to identify people at risk for schizophrenia. A meta-analysis of 11 clinical studies suggests those who develop psychosis already have changes in cortisol before they develop the mental health issues, suggesting cortisol measurement and early diagnosis may help alleviate some of the significant challenges faced by those with mental illness.

Hydration Status Crucial to Overall Health

Your hydration status is crucial to your overall health, and one of the significant measurements tracked in the new sweat-based sensors.14 Although you may rely on other fluids during the day, water is best for staying hydrated.

Other drinks add unnecessary and empty calories, including fruits and vegetable juices and even coffee and tea, depending upon how many additional items you add, such as sugar and milk. Your body depends on water to survive as every cell, tissue and organ uses water to work properly. Your body uses fluid to carry nutrients to your cells, flush out bacteria and prevent constipation.

Too often, older adults don't get enough fluids and risk dehydration, as their sense of thirst is diminished.15 In some cases, medications can cause fluid loss and result in weakness, low blood pressure, dizziness and confusion.

Staying hydrated also improves your physical performance as it reduces fatigue and improves your endurance.16 If you've been having trouble with trying to lose weight, you may be chronically dehydrated. Increasing your water intake may help to achieve better results. Dehydration also affects your mood, so staying regularly hydrated can improve calmness and positive emotions.

Even a slight amount of dehydration will reduce your cognitive performance, and dehydration is also a common cause for headaches and even migraines. Proper hydration can also be a useful tool to prevent kidney stones, asthma, urinary tract infections and coronary artery disease.17

Hydrating at the Cellular Level Is Key to Your Health

In this excerpt of an interview with Dr. Zach Bush, we discuss the importance of water and how just drinking may not be enough to fully hydrate your cells. Bush is a physician and researcher, triple board-certified in internal medicine, endocrinology and metabolism, as well as hospice and palliative care, giving him an unusually broad range of expertise.

Before he switched his focus to nutrition and natural medicine, he was a cancer researcher. Since your gut is an important part of the hydration cycle, the question becomes how do you remove water from your intestinal lining into your bloodstream and then into your cells.

The simple truth is, drinking enough water throughout the day may not be enough to get the water into your cells. Two-thirds of your body is composed of water and 66 percent to 70 percent of this water is within your cells and lymph system. As you age your body tends to lose the ability to get water from your vascular system into your cells.

Based on his research, Bush believes if your cells could stay hydrated, aging would slow down and potentially reverse. The reason is water is an important mechanism through which your body removes toxins and naturally produced oxidants from your body. Bush also contends oxygen may also be derived from hydrolysis of intercellular water into hydrogen and oxygen.

In his clinic, Bush determines his patient’s hydration by measuring phase angle in a way similar to using impedance to measure body fat. Your phase angle reading is not influenced by temporary situations but rather is a long-term reflection of your biology.

How to Hydrate Without Necessarily Drinking More Water

It's important to note you can improve your phase angle without increasing the amount of water you drink since drinking water is only one aspect of your hydration. Your body is likely to excrete extra water if you don't have sufficiently high enough electrical charge across your membranes.

In order to accomplish this, Bush recommends taking terrahydrite humic compounds to support your macro membranes and allow for greater intracellular hydration, and he strongly recommends reducing your electromagnetic field exposure as it can damage the tight gap junction system between cells.

According to Bush, a good rule of thumb is to drink 1 ounce of water per kilogram (kg) of body weight. This means if you are 75 kg, or about 150 to 165 pounds, drinking 70 to 75 ounces of water a day should maintain hydration. Read more about maintaining optimal hydration in my previous article, “Hydration Is About More Than Just Drinking Water — How to Hydrate at the Cellular Level to Improve Health and Longevity.”