(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
While we’ve all heard the recommendation to drink eight to twelve glasses of water a day, many of us think of it as a vague goal that we’re not especially compelled to go for. As a doctor, I’ve had the opportunity to ask a great many people how much water they drink, and I have noticed a strong correlation between low water consumption and certain kinds of health problems. The most common of these are muscle and joint pain, fatigue, headaches, skin problems, constipation and other digestive issues, and sinus problems. Some known symptoms of more serious dehydration include visual “snow,” dizziness, lightheadedness, rapid heart rate, nausea, low appetite, dry and cracked lips, dark urine, and low blood pressure. Alerting my patients of water’s role in these conditions is important to me because it addresses the cause, and it’s cheap and easy to drink more water.
The key factors in optimal water consumption are: total daily amount, the amount drunk at any one time, the temperature of the water, and current bodily and environmental conditions. A general rule for total daily intake is half the number of pounds you weigh as ounces of water daily. (For instance, a 100 pound person would drink 50 ounces of water a day.) However, body weight alone does not dictate a person’s need for water or their ability to assimilate it.
If you sweat a lot, your need for water will be greater. The same is true if you live in a hot or dry area, or have a heating system that dries out the air in your living or work environment. You will also need more water if you drink coffee, caffeinated tea, or use diuretic drugs, such as the common hypertension medication, hydrochlorothiazide. If you are exposed to toxins, such as pollution, alcohol and drugs, new building materials, etc., this is also a good time to increase your water consumption, to help your body clear these chemicals more efficiently. The same is true if you are engaged in a detoxification program.
The amount of water drunk at any one time shouldn’t exceed what the body can readily absorb. Ideally, this is a few ounces or less at a time, consumed at frequent intervals. It is helpful to consider the total amount of water you aim to consume in a day and divide this by the number of hours you’re awake. This will give you a sense of how many ounces you’ll need to drink each hour. For instance, if you weigh 192 pounds, you aim to drink 96 ounces a day, and you’re awake for 16 hours, this means imbibing a mere 3 ounces every half hour, or an ounce and a half every fifteen minutes. For many folks, the most difficult part is just remembering to do it. I encourage people to make use of any technology you can think of to do this: alarms on your phone or computer, sticky notes, and of course, having a drinking vessel near you at all times.
Water that is too cold, drunk too fast, or too much at a time can be disruptive to the body. Water should ideally be consumed at room temperature. Iced water is still the norm at most restaurants, but you can ask your server to bring you water without ice. Cold water causes the digestive tract to contract – just as our skin contracts into goosebumps when it’s cold. This interferes with our ability to digest, and over time, may lead to depletion of digestive function and other problems. This is especially true when the weather is cold. Shortly after meeting the woman who would later become my wife, I heard her complaining of chronic stomach pain. I mentioned that she might try avoiding cold water. We were both astonished when her years of pain disappeared as soon as she began drinking room temperature water instead.
Feeling bloated, nauseated, tired, achy, or “sloshy” in the stomach after drinking water is usually a sign that it was too much, too fast, or too cold. Remember not to use water to wash down food that hasn’t been thoroughly chewed (chew the food thoroughly instead). In fact, water should be consumed only in small amounts, if at all, while eating, because it may dilute our stomach acid, making it too weak to properly break down our food.
Stick to pure water when available – it’s wetter than other drinks. While it’s okay to add a little lemon or mild herbal tea (e.g., mint or chamomile) to your water and still have it “count,” gatorade, sweet juices, coffee, and caffeinated tea should not be considered as part of your daily water intake. Fizzy water is also okay in moderation (although it can take the enamel off your teeth), but it should not comprise the majority of the water you consume, since it is quite acidic.
Though the health problems mentioned in the first paragraph of this article may not necessarily be caused by dehydration, if you are bothered by any of them it’s worth evaluating your water consumption. In muscle and joint disorders, water is a key factor because of its vital role as a lubricant. It keeps muscles flexible and elastic. Dry muscles tend to be tight and stiff. Joints move smoothly through (among other things) the presence of synovial fluid – a (water-based) liquid that fills the joint capsule. And the spinal discs – dense sponges between our vertebrae which lend shock absorption and cushion to this bony column – do their job only when they’re moist and spongy.
Water’s relationship to our energy is fairly straightforward: water is the foundation of all fluidity, transportation, and connections within the body. It’s the matrix of all chemical reactions and the conductor of nerve impulses. The distribution of vitamins, minerals, oxygen, and other vital substances is carried out entirely via “liquid pathways.” All these mechanisms work best when we’re well hydrated and they decline as we dry out. Moreover, it is said that mental function diminishes at just 1% below optimal hydration, so drinking enough water is especially important while studying or doing other mentally-intensive work.
For constipation, adequate water is the most basic variable to consider. With insufficient water, the stool becomes hard and dry and it moves slowly. Always make sure you’re getting enough water before doing any other treatment for constipation. With sinus problems and colds, adequate fluids are a must because our hydration level affects the thickness of our phlegm. Also, infective processes tend to dry us out (especially if accompanied by fever). Water helps thin tenacious mucus so it can be broken down and expelled.
Headaches are frequently a sign of dehydration. The first thing to ask yourself if you have a headache is, “Am I drinking enough water?” Even headaches not directly due to dehydration are often a symptom of tight muscles of the neck and upper back, which may be tight as a result of dehydration.
Our skin is the largest detoxifying organ of the body, and it depends on water to carry out debris and stay supple. Many skin conditions, such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis, improve when water consumption is increased. Dryness and aging of the skin are also benefited by drinking sufficient water.
One way to get a sense of your hydration level is to take a look at your urine. The urine of a well-hydrated person should be about the color of straw or lighter (except after taking vitamins, which may cause a temporary “day-glow” color). It may be occasionally darker after treatments such as massage and acupuncture which tend to facilitate detoxification. So, be sure to have some water after your treatments to help support the healing process.
Finally, try to get as little of your water as possible in plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are a massive source of pollution. Also, they frequently contain toxic chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol-A, which leach into the water. You can reduce the environmental impact, avoid toxins, and save money all at once: get your water at home. If your tap water is good (check with your local water bureau if you aren’t sure), just bottle your own in a stainless steel or glass bottle. If your tap water isn’t good, consider looking into a water filter. Many options are available, from pitchers, to filters that attach to your faucet, to ones that sit atop your counter or beneath your sink. Even if you recycle the plastic bottles you buy, there are still loads of resources consumed in manufacturing the plastic, shipping the bottle, and recycling the plastic – it’s not at all the same as avoiding plastics altogether. You’ll feel good knowing you aren’t contributing to this cycle.
Copyright 2010 by Peter Borten. No reproduction in any form without permission.