Your body is two thirds water, which it needs to carry out countless metabolic processes. Reducing your hydration level by even 1.5% results in measurable disturbances to basic life functions: mental fog, lowered endurance, mood changes such as impatience and irritability, and disturbances to digestion and sleep.
The bad news: most people in our culture chronically operate at this slightly dehydrated level. Parched is the new normal. It is so familiar that most of us have come to think of these states as so commonplace that we can’t even notice them. The only way we could actually perceive this deficit would be to spend a period of time deliberately hydrated in order to compare that experience with our familiar “normal” state.
As I cited in a previous blog posting, substantial research demonstrates that the “cultural wisdom” that we need to drink 8 glasses of water a day is wrong. This amounts to a half gallon of water a day. Nearly every scientifically controlled experiment demonstrates that we need about a gallon of water per day under normal circumstances to stay hydrated. That amounts to 4 one-quart bottles. This total amount of water includes the moisture in fruit, vegetables, soups, and beverages such as tea or juice.
Here are some ways in which we lose water each day:
1) Breathing: Your lungs are moist in order to allow the oxygen in the air to transport across the cell membranes into your blood. The air you inhale into your lungs becomes moist, and when you exhale each breath wicks water away from your body. This is easily demonstrated by blowing a breath onto a mirror.
2) Sweat: Even when you are not “dripping” with sweat from a workout, your sweat glands release small amounts of water to regulate your temperature. On a sunny day, you might be able to see your skin glistening even though you do not feel like you are sweating.
3) Stress: Your adrenal glands produce aldosterone, which your body uses in regulating fluid level and electrolyte balance. Chronic stress impairs adrenal function, which in turn can deregulate your ability to stay hydrated. Increasing water consumption can help overcome acute stress, but for adrenal exhaustion the only long term solution is to reduce overall stress.
4) Age: Two age related changes are a reduction in your body’s ability to conserve its water as well as a reduced ability to perceive thirst. In this case developing good habits such as counting bottles of water consumed per day help compensate for decreased bio-feedback mechanisms.
5) Alcohol: There are three dehydrating consequences of drinking alcohol. It decreases one of your anti-diuretic hormones which in turn drives water into your bladder. Secondly, it causes cells to shrink which drives water into the blood to be purged by the bladder. Finally, despite all of this peeing, it reduces one’s sensitivity to perceiving signs of dehydration such as thirst and fatigue, resulting in less likelihood of rehydrating.
6) Sugar: Your body attempts to reduce blood sugar levels by flushing it out through urination. An informed diabetic knows to compensate by drinking extra water. However, people who who have borderline diabetic tendencies or those of us who eat sugars and grains in our diet may not be aware of the need to drink additional water.
7) Eating too few fruits and vegetables: Having about half of the bulk of your food from produce introduces at least two cups of fluid into your diet every day. If you don’t eat this many fruits and vegetables you will not only be missing necessary nutrition, but you will also need to compensate by drinking more water.
8) Exercise: In our cultural obsession over weight loss, people often celebrate the dramatic weight loss that they experience over the course of a hard workout. Of course, essentially all such weight change is water lost through sweat. Somehow seeking to preserve that “weight loss” by not immediately rehydrating is counter-productive to sustaining one’s health and well being. Regular exercise is crucial to long term weight management in terms of increasing one’s overall metabolism and burning off calories. However, sustaining and maintaing a long-term drop of a few pounds per month works best if one diligently maintains full hydration to keep the metabolism functioning at top capacity.
9) Menstruation: Estrogen and progesterone are part of the hydration regulation system, and when those hormones are fluctuating one’s ability to stay hydrated can be compromised.
10) Pregnancy: A prospective mother’s blood volume increases, increasing the amount of water she needs to consume.
11) Prescription medications: Any medication that lists vomiting and diarrhea as side effects may reduce body fluid levels. To the degree that you experience these you may need to increase your fluid intake.
12) Herbs and dietary supplements: Many “natural” herbs are diuretic, including parsley, watercress, celery seed, and dandelion.
13) High altitude, including flying: As the density of the air decreases with altitude, your body must breathe more deeply and frequently to get enough oxygen. This drives additional moisture our of you lungs. In addition, your body compensates for altitude by peeing more. Both of these are reasons to increase your fluid intake above the normal gallon of water per day.
14) Gluten sensitivity: A number of gut issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease and Crohn’s disease result in water loss through bowel movements. Even people who don’t have diagnosed cases of these diseases may have less pronounced conditions such as gluten intolerance that would benefit from replacing water lost in wet stools.
15) Breast feeding: This is easy to understand, in that the purpose of lactation is to transfer fluid and nutrients from the body of the mother to the infant. Breast feeding mothers need to dramatically increase both their fluid uptake as well as the amount of food that they eat.
I invite you to take the Fourteen Day Hydration Challenge. For two weeks, drink and count four one-quart water bottles a day. If you are eating soup, or lots of fruits and vegetables or other drinks, you may reduce the water proportionately if you would like.
Know that at first you will likely react to so much fluid as feeling over full, or notice that you are peeing more than you are accustomed. After the first week you will probably find your body has adjusted to the new regime and is much more comfortable. At the end of that period, see how you feel. Are you more lucid? more energetic? more emotionally resilient? more rested? If so, you might well find that drinking more water has been the easiest and least expensive change you have made with the highest personal payoff.