New Sweat Sensor Technology Tracks Health Biomarkers in Athletes

Sweaty athlete

Key Takeaways

  • New technology in clothing may be able to "read" biomarkers in your sweat, such as electrolytes and metabolites.
  • This innovation could help athletes adjust their hydration and supplement levels at earlier stages of activity.
  • This is just one example of wearable health innovation, and devices like these may be paired with coaching or telehealth, experts note.

Sweat sensors sewn into athletic clothing may be able to perform real-time analysis of biomarkers such as electrolytes, metabolites, and acidity, recent research suggests.

Published in Flexible Electronics, the new sweat sensor technology would feature flexible threads coated with conductive inks that could be used to detect changes in perspiration, giving athletes and others information on pH levels, lactate, sodium, and other performance-related substances.

Potential Benefits

The researchers note that sweat is rich in "physiological and metabolic biomarkers, which are indicators of human health and performance."

For example, knowing your sodium levels can indicate whether you're in danger of becoming dehydrated, or have an electrolyte imbalance. Metabolites like lactate concentration are predictors of muscle fatigue, which is useful information for strength and endurance training to push muscles to peak performance levels.

Researchers added that sweat can also be used to track:

  • Cortisol, the hormone most related to your stress response
  • Glucose, which could be used for diabetes monitoring
  • Ammonium, to give an indication of protein breakdown
  • Hypoxia, indicating inefficient use of oxygen

Sweat sensors can be minimally invasive, the researchers note, and produced not just for clothing, but in wristbands, headbands, and even "temporary tattoos" made of paper and flexible polymers with the devices embedded in them.

How it Works

For the recent study, researchers used a sensor placed on the inside of a commercial adhesive bandage, similar to what you'd use for a small scrape or cut. Each sensor is made up of a miniaturized circuit that contains a microprocessor, wireless circuitry for transmitting to a smartphone, and a potentiostat, which controls the voltage between the electrodes.

Patched into this are tiny, flexible thread sensors, with a special pH-sensitive coating that can "read" the sweat, detecting substances like electrolytes. The entire sensor system is small enough to fit comfortably inside the gauze section of a standard-size Band-Aid.

Health Tracking Wearables

The new sweat sensor tech is not the only innovation that's centered on detecting issues related to health while offering the convenience of wearability. For example, fitness trackers have evolved from simply counting your steps to giving insights on sleep quality, hydration levels, and cardiovascular trends.

But like the sweat sensor, researchers are looking to expand the capabilities of fitness trackers—not just for athletes, but for everyone.

For instance, a 2019 study observed patients diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who wore fitness trackers for a year. Then they compared data on step counts, heart rate, and sleep patterns with levels of C-reactive protein and faecal calprotectin, which are both indicators of intestinal inflammation.

Researchers found that in the weeks leading up to a flare-up, participants logged fewer steps on average than when they were in symptom remission—about 2,500 fewer steps daily.

Other health tracking devices are able to measure:

  • Blood pressure
  • Body temperature
  • Stress levels
  • Body composition
  • Blood sugar

Tool for Preventative Medicine

Wearable health technology had been explored and rolled out prior to COVID-19, but a potential effect of the virus could be a rise in the use of personal health devices like sweat sensors, along with telehealth, as a way to monitor the results, says David Cutler, MD, family medicine specialist with the Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

"We're seeing more private insurers as well as Medicare and Medicaid covering the costs of telehealth appointments now, and that may be the pivot point for expanding the use of more technology overall," he says.

This could be a boon not just for increasing access, but also for preventative medicine, he adds. Being able to detect issues in the early stages has always been the focus for healthcare professionals, but can often prove difficult as patients may not see their providers until symptoms worsen.

"As people become more comfortable with healthcare technology, I think there will be quite a bit of adoption of home-based options in the future," adds Eric Goldberg, MD, a clinical associate professor and medical director at NYU Langone Health in New York. "This is great for doctors as well as patients, since we can see what your space is like, and you're more comfortable as a patient. This is the new house call."

Eric Goldberg, MD

As people become more comfortable with healthcare technology, I think there will be quite a bit of adoption of home-based options in the future

— Eric Goldberg, MD

Virtual Coaching Option

Similar to doctors and patients using health technology for prevention, innovations like the sweat sensor and fitness trackers with more capability could be helpful for athletes—professional or recreational—and their coaches if the coronavirus continues to be an issue in the future.

Because of the pandemic, virtual coaching is becoming much more popular and trainers are looking for tools that help them monitor clients effectively, says Scottsdale, Ariz.-based personal trainer Ramsey Bergeron, CPT.

"Many people are hesitant to return to gyms, and for good reason, especially in areas seeing increases in cases," he says. "But turning to technology could be one way to accommodate this change, and keep coaches and clients connected, and getting the needs of athletes addressed in a timely way."

What This Means For You

While the wearable sweat sensors tested in the new research aren't quite ready for the market yet, there are plenty of fitness options already available that can give you insights on athletic performance, as well as sleep, stress, and food tracking. As long as setting goals for these healthy behaviors isn't one more stressor, these innovations can be useful for seeing how your health and fitness data changes over time.

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