Lifestyle Solutions for a Happy Healthy You!

 

Water plays an integral role in nearly every biological process in the body.  Everything from controlling the body’s thermostat to regulating blood pressure  to taking out the trash relies on water to get the job done. Yet, for such a  life-and-death nutrient, most of us take water for granted.

Sure, we know we should imbibe, but how much? Does the water in  caffeinated drinks, like coffee and soda, count for or against us? And should  you drink before you’re thirsty or wait for your thirst signal to kick in?

“A lot of what we think about water is sheer guesswork,” says Elson Haas, MD,  an integrated-medicine physician in San Rafael, Calif., and the author, most  recently, of Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts,  2006). “A lack of research has led to a lack of knowledge. In fact, most of what  people think they know about water isn’t even true.”

To get beyond confusing water myths and delve into some commonsense wisdom,  we tapped several experts on water intake and human health. Here are the ins and  outs of keeping your body well watered.

Myth No. 1: Dehydration is relatively rare and occurs only when the  body is deprived of water for days.

Reality: Low-grade dehydration (versus acute and clinical  dehydration) is a chronic, widespread problem that has major impacts on  well-being, energy, appearance and resiliency. Christopher Vasey, ND, a Swiss  naturopath and author of The Water Prescription (Healing Arts Press, 2006),  believes that most people suffer regularly from this type of chronic dehydration  because of poor eating and drinking habits.

Chronic dehydration can cause digestive disorders because our bodies need  water to produce the digestive juices that aid the digestive process. If we  don’t get that water, we don’t secrete enough digestive juices, and a variety of  problems — such as gas, bloating, nausea, poor digestion and loss of appetite — can ensue.

Bottom Line:If you’re not actively focusing on  hydrating throughout the day, there’s a good chance you could be at least  somewhat dehydrated, which could be negatively affecting your energy, vitality  and immunity — as well as your appearance. Experiment with drinking more water  throughout the day. You may observe an almost immediate difference in your  well-being, and even if you don’t, establishing good hydration habits now will  do many good things for your cellular health over the long haul.

Myth No. 2: Your body needs eight, 8-ounce glasses of water  daily.

Reality: Your body does need a steady supply of water to  operate efficiently and perform the many routine housekeeping tasks that keep  you healthy and energetic.

That said, there is no scientific evidence to back up the very specific and  well-worn advice that you need to drink eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day  (a.k.a. the 8 x 8 rule). In 2002, Heinz Valtin, MD, a retired physiology  professor from Dartmouth Medical School and author of two textbooks on kidney  function, published the definitive paper on the subject in the American  Journal of Physiology. He spent 10 months searching medical literature for  scientific evidence of the 8 x 8 rule only to come up empty-handed.

In 2004, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a division of the National Academy  of Sciences, actually set the adequate total-daily-water intake at higher than  64 ounces — 3.7 liters (125 fluid ounces) for men and 2.7 liters (91 fluid  ounces) for women. But those numbers refer to total water intake, meaning all  beverages and water-containing foods count toward your daily quota. Fruits and  veggies, for example, pack the most watery punch, with watermelon and cucumbers topping the list.

But the “it all counts” dynamic cuts both ways. Vasey believes that many  people suffer from low-grade, chronic dehydration because of what they are  eating as well as what they are drinking. The “I don’t like water” crowd could  probably make up their water deficits by eating the right kinds of foods, he  asserts, “but most don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Instead they eat  meat, cereals and breads, which don’t have much water and contain a lot of salt.”

Animal proteins require a great deal more moisture than they contain to break  down, assimilate and then flush from the body. And many processed foods, such as  chips and crackers, for example, are nearly devoid of moisture, so — like dry  sponges — they soak up water as they proceed through the digestive system.

The body requires only 3 to 5 grams of salt a day to stay healthy, but most  people gobble up 12 to 15 grams of the stuff daily. To rid itself of the  overload, the body requires copious amounts of liquid.

Bottom Line: If you want to stay optimally healthy, hydrated  and energetic, it’s a good idea to eat plenty of water-containing foods and drink water throughout the day. And when in doubt, it’s probably  not a bad idea to make a point of drinking a little more water, rather than a  little less. But that doesn’t mean you need to down eight glasses exactly, or  that if you run a little shy of 64 ounces, then something awful is going to  happen. Just be aware that the fewer vegetables, fruits and legumes you are  eating, and the more dried, processed or chemical-laced foods you include in  your diet, the more water you’ll need to consume to compensate.

Myth No. 3: When it comes to hydrating, all beverages are created  equal.

Reality: Not so. In principle, the 90 to 125 (or so) ounces  recommended by the Institute of Medicine would include your morning coffee, the  soda you drink with lunch and even a glass of wine at dinner. Practically  speaking, however, caffeinated, sweetened and alcoholic drinks pack chemical  cargoes (or trigger chemical reactions) that demand significant amounts of fluid  to properly process and filter. As a result, nonwater beverages can actually set  you back, water-wise, many experts suggest. “They can actually dehydrate the  body,” says Haas.

For example, says Vasey, drinks like coffee, black tea and cocoa are very  high in purines, toxins that must be diluted in large quantities of water to be  flushed from the body.

Artificially sweetened drinks add to the body’s toxic  burden. Sugar and coffee also create an acidic environment in the body, impeding  enzyme function and taxing the kidneys, which must rid the body of excess  acid.

Moreover, says Vasey, caffeine found in coffee, black tea and soft drinks  adversely affects your body’s water stores because it is a diuretic that  elevates blood pressure, increasing the rate of both the production and  elimination of urine. “The water in these drinks travels through the body too  quickly,” says Vasey. “Hardly has the water entered the bloodstream than the  kidneys remove a portion of the liquid and eliminate it, before the water has  time to make its way into the intracellular environment.” (For more on the  importance of intracellular hydration, see “Myth No. 5.”)

Bottom Line: Moderate consumption of beverages like coffee  and tea is fine, but be aware that while some of the fluids in nonwater  beverages may be helping you, certain ingredients may be siphoning away your  body’s water stores. So, when you’re drinking to hydrate, stick primarily with  water. And, if you’re looking for a pick-me-up, try sparkling water with a  squeeze of citrus.

Myth No. 4: By the time you get thirsty, you’re already  dehydrated.

Reality: Again, it depends on what you mean by “dehydrated.” Experts like Vasey posit that while those walking around in a state of  subclinical dehydration may not feel thirst, their bodies are sending other  signals of inadequate hydration — from headaches and stomachaches to low energy  to dry skin.

But when it comes to avoiding the more widely accepted definition of clinical  dehydration, thirst is a good indicator of when you need to swig. Here’s the  deal: As water levels in the body drop, the blood gets thicker. When the  concentration of solids in the blood rises by 2 percent, the thirst mechanism is  triggered. A 1 percent rise in blood solids could be called “mild dehydration,” but it could also be considered a normal fluctuation in bodily fluids.

Either way, feeling thirsty is a good indicator that you need to get some  water into your body, and soon. Serious symptoms of dehydration don’t arise  until blood solids rise by 5 percent — long after you feel thirsty. But,  obviously, you don’t want to wait that long. Even mild, subclinical levels of  dehydration come with sacrifices in optimal vitality, metabolism and appearance.  Like an underwatered plant, the body can survive on less water than it wants,  but it’s unlikely to thrive.

Bottom Line: Drinking water only when you’re  thirsty may relegate you to being less than optimally hydrated much of the time,  and it may undermine your energy and vitality. On the other hand, constantly  sipping or gulping calorie- or chemical-laden beverages for entertainment is a  bad idea. So if you tend to keep a bottle of soda on your desk all day, or if  you’re never seen without your coffee cup in hand, rethink your approach. Get in  the habit of drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning, and a few  more glasses of water throughout the day. Also drink proactively (especially  important during strenuous exercise, long airplane flights and in hot  weather).

Myth No. 5: Hydrating is all about water.

Reality: Nope. It takes a delicate balance of minerals,  electrolytes and essential fatty acids to get and keep water where it needs to  be — properly hydrating your bloodstream, your tissues and your cells.

“You can drink lots of water and still be dehydrated on a cellular level,” says Haas. Water you drink is absorbed from the digestive tract into the  bloodstream by small blood vessels (capillaries). Of the water contained in food  and beverages, 95 percent ends up in the blood. From the blood, water moves into  the fluid surrounding the cells, called extracellular fluid. That’s important,  but it’s not the end of the line. Water needs to get inside cells for you to  maintain optimal health.

A person’s vitality is affected by how well his or her body gets water into  and out of cells, says Haas. A variety of unhealthy lifestyle habits and health  conditions can inhibit this cellular capacity, he notes. But naturally, too, as  the body ages, the water inside cells (intracellular) tends to diminish, and  water outside cells (extracellular or interstitial fluid) tends to accumulate.  Haas calls this gradual drying out of cells a “biomarker of aging.”

Minerals, especially electrolytes and trace minerals, are essential to  maintaining cellular equilibrium. Minerals help transport water into the cells,  where they also activate enzymes. And enzymes are the basis of every biological  process in the body, from digestion to hormone secretion to cognition. Without  minerals, says Haas, enzymes get sluggish and the body suffers.

Without essential fatty acids — which form the basis for cellular  membranes — cells can’t properly absorb, hold and stabilize the water and other  nutrients they’re supposed to contain.

Bottom Line:Take in plenty of minerals by eating  lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds — ideally from produce grown  according to biodynamic farming practices, meaning the farmer is supporting  (rather than depleting) nutrients in the soil. Another way to boost minerals in  the diet is cooking with a high-quality sea salt. A natural, unrefined sea salt  will deliver up to 60 trace minerals your body needs to manage water flow. Also,  try to include whole foods that are high in essential fatty acids, such as  walnuts and flax seeds, which are critical to maintaining healthy cell membranes  that can hold in moisture. And consider a multimineral supplement that includes  an ample supply of trace minerals in its formulation.

Myth No. 6: Healthy urine is always clear.

Reality:Urine color is directly linked to  hydration status because the yellow tint is a measure of how many solid  particles, such as sodium, chloride, nitrogen and potassium, are excreted. The  color’s intensity depends on how much water the kidneys mix with the solids.  Less water equals darker urine. More water equals lighter urine. Dark or  rank-smelling urine are signs your body may need more water. But light-to-medium  yellow urine is fine. Very clear urine may actually be a signal that your  kidneys are taxed by the amount of fluid moving through them and the minerals in  your body are being too diluted.

Also note that some vitamins, such as riboflavin, or B2, can turn urine  bright yellow, so don’t be alarmed if your urine is a funny color after either  swallowing a multivitamin or eating certain foods, like nutritional yeast, which  is high in B vitamins.

Bottom Line: Drink enough water to make light yellow  (lemonade-colored) urine. The volume depends on your activity level and  metabolism. If your urine is cloudy or dark or foul smelling, increase your  water intake and monitor changes. If you don’t see a positive change, consult a  health professional.

Myth No. 7: Drinking too much water leads to water  retention.

Reality: The body retains water in response to biochemical  and hormonal imbalances, toxicity, poor cardiovascular and cellular health — and, interestingly, dehydration. “If you’re not drinking enough liquid, your  body may actually retain water to compensate,” says Vasey, adding that a general  lack of energy is the most common symptom of this type of water retention. “Paradoxically, you can sometimes eliminate fluid retention by drinking more  water, not less, because if you ingest enough water, the kidneys do not try and  retain water by cutting back on elimination,” he explains.

Bottom Line:No good comes of drinking less water  than you need. If you have water-retention problems, seek professional counsel  to help you identify the root cause (food intolerances, for example, are a  common culprit in otherwise healthy people). Do not depend on diuretics or water  avoidance to solve your problems, since both strategies will tend to make the  underlying healthy challenges worse, not better.

Myth No. 8: You can’t drink too much water.

Reality: Under normal conditions, the body flushes the water  it doesn’t need. But it is possible — generally under extreme conditions when  you are drinking more than 12 liters in 24 hours or exercising heavily — to  disrupt the body’s osmotic balance by diluting and flushing too much sodium, an  electrolyte that helps balance the pressure of fluids inside and outside of  cells. That means cells bloat from the influx and may even burst.

While the condition, called hyponatremia, is rare, it happens. Long-distance  runners are at highest risk for acute hyponatremia (meaning the imbalance  happens in less than 48 hours), but anyone can get in trouble if they drink  water to excess without replacing essential electrolytes and minerals. Extreme  overconsumption of water can also strain the kidneys and, if drunk with meals,  interfere with proper digestion.

Chronic hyponatremia, meaning sodium levels gradually taper off over days or  weeks, is less dangerous because the brain can gradually adjust to the deficit,  but the condition should still be treated by a doctor. Chronic hyponatremia is  often seen in adults with illnesses that leach sodium from the body, such as  kidney disease and congestive heart failure. But even a bad case of diarrhea,  especially in children, can set the stage for hyponatremia. Be on the lookout  for symptoms such as headache, confusion, lethargy and appetite loss.

Bottom Line: Never force yourself to drink past a feeling of  fullness. If you are drinking copious amounts of water and still experiencing  frequent thirst, seek help from a health professional. If you’re drinking lots  of fluids to fuel an exercise regimen that lasts longer than one hour, be sure  to accompany your water with adequate salts and electrolytes. For information on  wise fitness-hydration strategies, read “How to Hydrate” in our December 2007  archives at experiencelifemag.com.

Vasey hopes that health-motivated people will return to the simple pleasures  of water in much the same way they’ve recently rediscovered the myriad benefits  of whole foods over heavily processed and aggressively marketed industrial fare. “Nature gave us water, not soft drinks,” he says. “It’s time to get back to  basics.”

By Megan

Megan, selected from Experience  Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness  publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic  lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in  favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com   to learn more and to sign  up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe  to the print or digital version.

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