Drink to Your Health

You are most likely chronically under-hydrated.  While the body is designed to maintain hydration levels within a very narrow range, most people do not flush enough fresh water through themselves to allow their systems to run at optimal levels.

Imagine the analogy of a pond.  If there is not sufficient flushing through the pond with water both flowing in and spilling out, the pond will stagnate.  Algae will bloom and the water turn green and become stinky from lack of aerobic activity.  Even though the pond level may not drop much, the lack of fresh water flushing out the fetid water results in putrification.  

Now imagine that your skin is a leather bag containing a spongy matrix that holds water..a lot of water.  Your body is actually 65% water. While your body will hold on to the water that it has in order to operate, it runs cleaner when you are flushing fresh water through the system.

In 2009 Tufts University researchers published a study in the Journal of Nutrition on the effects of slight dehydration on female athletes.  The report authors considered this “…level of dehydration (losses between 1% and 2%) experienced among the participants in the study could be compared to the mild dehydration some people experience in their daily lives from drinking insufficient amounts of water”.   The study documented that even this slight dehydration resulted in decreased cognitive function and impaired mood, including  fatigue during both rest and exercise, confusion, loss of focus, headaches, and negative moods in the study subjects.

The reason you contain so much water is that your cells are little bubbles filled with water.  The cells need to be plump and healthy to function at their fullest capacity.  Each cell is a little factory, taking in fuel, performing a little industry, and generating pollution. Your blood fluid, called plasma, carries the nutrients that energize your cells. As you flush the cell with water, the waste toxins are then washed away into the blood plasma to be filtered by the kidneys and ultimately removed from your body as urine.  If the cell walls do not have sufficient hydraulic pressure from their surroundings, they do not as readily transfer the toxins by osmosis into your blood plasma.  In an under hydrated environment, a cell hangs on to the water that it already has, which results in the cell marinating in its own toxins.  Cell function is compromised as a result. 

Usually this happens below our level of awareness.  One way that we are able to actually perceive the buildup of cell toxins is in our muscles.  If you exert yourself more than you are accustomed, say hiking up a hill with a heavy backpack for many hours, then the next day or two your thigh and butt muscles will be sore.  That stiffness is the result of more lactic acid being produced in your muscle cells than can be flushed out quickly.  Your subsequent inability to stand up quickly out of a chair and to move with grace and ease is because your muscle cells cannot function well when loaded with their own waste products.  Until your body successfully flushes out the lactic acid, you will be hobbling around with less mobility.  It hurts.

Most such buildup of cell wastes cannot be felt directly.  One place that lack of sufficient water does affect our function without our being aware of it is in our brain tissue, which is closer to 85% water.  Nerve transmission happens between the axons and dendrites of the nerve cells, within the interstitial space between the cells themselves.  While each individual cell needs water, collectively they also all need to be suspended in a fluid matrix that helps transport the electrical signal from cell to cell.  Again, the body successfully maintains a very narrow band of operating hydration so that these signals can operate.  However, there is measurable signal drop-off between the top of the upper band of the range and the lower.  You might not be technically “dehydrated” at the lower end of the range, but your cognitive functioning will be compromised as compared to the ease of mental functioning with fully flushed, plump neural hydration at the top of the range.

Dr. Joseph Cilona, writing in the Dr. Oz Blog on 8/15/2013, says that, “Dehydration can have a negative impact on important brain functions like short-term memory, visuomotor functioning, and psychomotor functioning.  This can impact things like the ability to focus on a computer screen or reading material, hand-eye coordination and concentration.”

When is the longest period that you go without drinking in a 24 hour cycle?  Typically, that would be overnight while you sleep.  We think of breakfast as the time to get food into our bodies to fuel our day, which is of course important.  It has taken me longer to realize that as important, if not more so, is the urgency to begin flushing our systems with water first thing in the morning.  

Our cells have been industriously generating waste products in the leisure time of our rest, doing whatever processing and housekeeping that they can while many of our physical systems are not under stress.  They have dumped as much of their waste into the sewer system that is our blood as they can.  But all night long we have not been flushing our system with fresh water.  Even more urgent than eating food is the need to drink fresh water.  Many people address that need to drink by waking up to a cup of coffee.  While there is water in coffee, and that helps to some degree with the needed flush, coffee is also dehydrating, so on the balance it is counterproductive.  My new practice is to sleep with a water bottle beside my bed, with the objective of drinking the entire bottle before I get out of bed for my morning pee.  Water in, water out.  That is the healthy flushing that we seek to maintain all day.

So how much water is sufficient for a given day?  Of course it depends upon your activity level and ambient temperature and humidity.  Besides urination, we also dump water with each exhalation from our moist lungs, and sweat water though our largest organ, the skin.  The rates at which we lose water to respiration and perspiration varies tremendously.  At Burning Man the air is so dry that each and every breath sucks water out of the body at such a rate that people fall ill when they drink less than a gallon a day.  We also lose a bit of water in our feces, and through a general “wicking away” of water from our skin and mucous membranes. 

Perhaps the most more common colloquial recommendation is to drink eight 8 ounce cups, or two quarts per day.  There is essentially no scientific research to back up this folk wisdom. Based upon a review of published scientific research, the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies is 3.7 liters of water per day for adult men (about 125 oz. which is approximately a gallon), and 2.7 for adult women (about 91oz.). To clarify, that is considered to include all of your beverages, as well as the water in the food you eat, such as milk on your cereal or soup at dinner.  Vegetables are mostly water, and add to your water intake.  

I have frequently heard the opinion expressed by some medical  practitioners that dehydration is not something to either consider or be concerned about.   Their rationale is based on the theory that nearly everything we consume has water in it, and that we are evolved to drink when we need to in order to maintain our narrow band of necessary hydration.

Countervailing that are other practitioners of what I will call “optimum health” regimes.  These vary from progressive medical doctors and contemporary health practitioners to ancient traditions such as Taoism and Ayurveda.  These various disciplines range in their recommendations, but the preponderance of opinion is that a half gallon is not sufficient for optimal health.  Their recommendations cluster closer to a gallon of fresh water a day, or four large water bottles.  This also corresponds with the Institute of Health recommendation.  Again, there is a variety of opinion from “only water counts as water” to all water consumed in any form counts toward that gallon.

Regarding our strong impulse to maintain our hydration level, it is common for people to mistake thirst for hunger.  Quite often our impulse to grab a snack is actually our body seeking more water.  Give it a try.  When you feel that urge to snack, try drinking a bottle of water.  It provides a pleasant feeling of being full, and if I have been eating enough nutritious food throughout the day, my craving is almost always satisfied…and I haven’t consumed unnecessary calories.

We’re all familiar with the standard advice from doctors, that when we are sick with a cold we should “get plenty of rest and drink lots of water.”  If drinking lots of water helps the body to move toward health and recover from being sick, doesn’t it make sense that drinking lots of water would be an excellent way of preserving health and preventing sickness in the first place?  

How do you know whether you are drinking enough or not?  If your pee comes out cloudy or significantly tinted, that is a sign that you may be insufficiently hydrated.  (Exceptions to this can be if you have eaten beets or other foods that color your pee, or if you have taken B vitamins since your last pee which tend to flush through a darker yellow.)  If you go for more than three to five hours without peeing, you are likely dehydrated, too.

What are the consequences of drinking too much water? You may have heard horror stories about a woman who died while competing on a water-drinking contest sponsored by a radio show.  This rare condition is called hyponatremia, and is most easily thought of as to little sodium in the blood from being diluted by all the water, resulting in the cells and fluids of the body retaining too much water.  Besides swelling of the ankles and legs, cramps or fatigue, another reaction might be nausea and vomiting as the body seeks to expel excess water.  If the condition is exacerbated by losing sodium through sweat from exertion such as running a marathon in hot weather. The lack of sodium may trick the body into trying to retain fluids, which is the opposite of what it needs to do.  The worst consequence would be swelling of the cells in the brain, which has little room to expand in the skull and can cause disorientation, confusion, and even coma.  That all said, unless one is taking extreme measures of fasting from nutrient consumption while exercising excessively and wildly over-indulging in water, there is little chance that drinking the recommended amount of water could cause any harm to your body.

Since drinking sufficient water is one of the easiest possible things that you can do to improve your vitality, consider structures that you can put into place to help you develop that practice.

One technique that I’ve seen is to fill four empty water bottles each evening before going to bed, with the objective of drinking them during the next day and filling them again before bedtime.  Chilled water is more difficult to drink in big gulps, and can be disturbing in quantity in the belly.  I prefer water that is at least room temperature if not lukewarm.  Then I can chug a full water bottle and have a nice feeling of being full without the shock that can come from iced water.  

I personally try to avoid drinking too much water two to three hours before going to sleep.  What is your usual bedtime? Subtract three hours and you get your personal time objective for finishing your fourth bottle.  I typically drink a bit more after that cutoff as I brush my teeth, or finish dancing for the night, but I tend not to chug a whole water bottle at those times either, so as to avoid waking to pee during the night.

It also works for my way of doing things to structure times to finish those bottles, as well.  I aim to finish one before getting out of bed,  two more before lunch, and the last one before dinner.  It’s ideal to consume the largest quantities of water before meals rather than too soon afterwards, in that you don’t want to dilute the digestive juices that are needed to process and absorb the nutrients in your meals.  I tend to not drink fluids during or after eating, but again, this is a tendency not a rule.  Some dry foods are more comfortable to chew and swallow accompanied with fluids.

Please note that if you do resolve to increase your fluid intake, allow your body some time to adjust to the new routine.  It often takes up to seven days for the body regulatory systems to get used to an increased fluid intake. The first week you may need to wake more frequently at night to pee, or find that your urgency to relieve yourself during the day is uncomfortable.  Many of those effects do reduce after a week, so don’t be discouraged in the first days of drinking more.  Your body will easily adapt to a new, healthy regime, and ultimately be more relaxed and grateful for your increased attention to its needs. 

There are fewer health practices easier than drinking an abundance of water.  There are few practices that make such a difference to your health and well being.  At this intersection of low cost and high benefit, you derive tremendous health value.  Drink up, to your health!

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