Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
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.
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.
“We developed this product to perform optimally under the most extreme conditions. The health of our highly trained astronauts was paramount,” says Greenleaf, now retired from NASA. “With all that Americans and the Government have invested in the Space Program and our astronauts, this is one clear way to protect and maximize that investment.” 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.”
“As is typical, NASA put their scientists on developing a superior technology, in this case to relieve and prevent the ravages of dehydration,” Belaga says. “NASA spent about 15 years working through various combinations to get to the optimal formula.”