When it comes to water intake, we are constantly (quite ironically) inundated by the health mainstream with the importance of water and the dangers of dehydration. We are advised to drink at least 8 8-ounce glasses (1.89 L) of water a day (sometimes more) and that if our urine is even the least bit yellow we’re, *gasp*, dehydrated! While no one is really able to defend that statement for the prescription to drink that much water, your typical health nuts will smile, nod and acknowledge it with an “H2Oh yeah, baby!” as they take a knee and start chugging from their beloved Nalgene water bottles that they never dare let out of their grasp.
Even those who are not particularly invested in their health tend to be well aware of the suggestion to drink lots of water and stay “hydrated.” Now, don’t misunderstand me, as water is very important to the functioning of our bodies. I dig that. It’s the idea that we all need to be drinking 64+ ounces of water every day that garners my disapproval. And although it has been discredited again and again, it remains one of the most universally regurgitated pearls of health wisdom today.
First of all, what ever happened to drinking when thirsty and eating when hungry? If you’re thirsty, sure, have some water. It’s when you’re forcing down water and peeing every 30-45 minutes that it becomes uncomfortable but and inconvenient. What if you were to do the same with food and eat all the time when you weren’t hungry even though it made you physically uncomfortable? Would that raise a red flag for you?
Then, what about individual variation? Do you think a hard-training athlete needs to drink as much water as someone who is completely sedentary? Do you think someone who lives in a tropical climate needs the same amount of water as someone who lives in a polar or even moderate one? What about someone who sweats all the time and someone else who doesn’t sweat at all? Should a 6’5″ male athlete and a 5’2″ sedentary female eat the same amount of food? Is water really so different?
Here in the United States, we are taking in more liquids than ever. Have you seen the size of drinks at fast food chains? Free refills at these chains and other restaurants also foster the mass intake of fluids. Just walk into Starbucks and order a medium coffee–“I’m sorry, sir, did you mean ‘grande’?”–uh, no, Charles, I didn’t, but I know you knew what I meant. You know we drink a lot when the small is ‘tall’, the medium is ‘grande’, and the large is ‘venti’. Many people these days drink huge coffees, cappuccinos, frappuccinos, lattes, etc. to start their mornings or even drink several of them throughout the day. That’s a lot of water already, but I guess that doesn’t count.
The reason why this is so important is because we often hear of the dangers being dehydrated, but don’t hear much if anything of the dangers and complications of being over-hydrated. When we drink too much water, we disrupt the electrolyte balance of our cells by washing out sodium, the primary electrolyte in our cells. As cells continue to flood, they can rupture, causing problems throughout the body. When sodium levels drop too low a condition known as hyponatremia develops. When water is consumed in such enormous quantities it dilutes our bodily fluids. If you’ve ever tasted tears, sweat, or other bodily fluids, you probably noticed they were pretty salty, or should have been anyway. The same thing happens with urine, so when it is completely clear, you can be pretty sure it has been almost completely diluted. When this happens, not only will you likely find your hands, feet, and nose are cold, your body temperature drops, your metabolism plummets, and you have to pee all the time, but it can also have some negative and far reaching health effects that can kill seemingly healthy people. Try to notice the difference in how you feel (especially how warm you feel) when your urine is clear vs. when it’s yellow.
Paradoxically, the most health conscious people tend to be at the most risk for symptoms of hyponatremia and over-hydration in general. This is because they tend to drink the most water and eat foods with very high water content like fruits and vegetables. Many drink herbal teas, smoothies, and protein shakes on top of all the water they’re drinking–and it really adds up. I was guilty of this for a long time, until I had a wake up call a couple of years ago. I was living in the Dominican Republic at the time and it was the middle of the summer so it was very hot. As the ever-health-conscious lad I was, I decided to take my hydration to a Whole. ‘Nother. Level. I bought a ton of Dasani 5 liter (169 oz) jugs and decided to drink at least one per day. And I did. I was a paragon of health and wellness…until I wet the bed. Yup. I wasn’t even fully awake before it was too late. It was a ton of work for my kidneys to process all that water and it provoked such an acute stress response that my body couldn’t react properly. Oops.
Last year I read Matt Stone’s Eat for Heat and began to play with some of the ideas in it. I was able to naturally improve my electrolyte balance by eating salt to taste and drinking fluids to thirst whilst getting enough calories for my [formidable] size and activity levels.
My results were awesome:
- I was sleeping better than I had in years
- Elimination of body odor, even after days of not washing
- Moister and softer skin
- Better facial complexion
- Improved sex drive and function
- Stronger and less sensitive teeth and gums, even without brushing
- Warmer body temperature
- Only having to pee a few times a day rather than constantly
- Better digestion and bowel transit time
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Water is great and very important, but its intake should be based on individual needs. I personally don’t really drink plain water much at all, as I get a ton of water from the foods I eat and certain juices and other drinks. If you want to start playing around with this, I recommend paying attention to how much you drink or how many fluids you take in each day. Take note of how you feel when your urine is different concentrations (darker is more concentrated and clearer is less.) Try to aim for having some nice yellow color, but not too dark, and to only be going to the bathroom every few hours. Also, don’t be afraid of salt. It deserves its own whole post, but your body craves it because you NEED it. And please, don’t feel compelled to drink when you’re not thirsty!
Soooo is dehydration ubiquitous or overblown? I’d say a little bit of both, that is, ubiquitously overblown. The solution? Eating salt to taste and drinking water or other beverages to thirst. Profound, I know. :)