We hear about it all the time… drink your water, stay hydrated, don’t forget to keep up your fluid intake. But why in the world is hydration so important anyway, and what exactly does hydration mean?
Hydration refers to the process by which living things take in water. Many living organisms cannot survive without taking water into their cells as water is part of what is needed by cells to generate energy. Since humans are made up of about 70 percent water, it makes sense that taking in water is important for almost all bodily functions, from lubricating your joints, to moistening your mucus membranes, to helping your blood to circulate oxygen-rich blood to your cells, and helping maintain proper body temperature.
So what causes dehydration anyway? Since you are so dependent on proper water balance, if you lose water in any capacity, whether it be from not taking in enough water, to losing fluids through illness, fever, vomiting, diarrhea or perspiration, you will very quickly develop signs and symptoms that might alert you to the fact that you need to replenish your fluids.
Some of the early symptoms of being dehydrated can include fatigue and lethargy, so instead of reaching for a caffeinated beverage, which can only aggravate the problem by acting as a diuretic (promotes production of urine), consider drinking more hydrating fluids such as water first. Also try to keep an eye on the color of your urine as a light, faintly pale yellow color is just about the right color to ensure your hydration status is sufficient. If you notice yourself urinating less than every few hours, or your urine begins to look dark yellow or amber colored, reach for your water pronto. If you start to feel lightheaded easily or dizzy, it could mean that you have lost a significant volume of water in your bloodstream and your blood pressure is running low. Again, try to drink an 8 ounce glass of water every hour or two over the course of the day. Your goal should be to try to take in about 64 ounces of hydrating beverages each day. Avoid things like alcohol and caffeine as those serve to make you lose fluids through their effects on your kidneys and can quickly lead to water losses that are excessive.
Other, more serious symptoms of significant dehydration in your body can include a fast heartbeat and feeling easily overheated. Often, by the time you experience some of these symptoms, you will also lose some much needed electrolytes such as potassium or magnesium and you may start to experience muscle cramps and aching of your extremities. Another unpleasant consequence of prolonged inadequate water intake can include constipation and abdominal cramping. The other part of your body that may be affected by low water intake is your skin. Water plays a large part in the health of our skin and when you aren’t staying well hydrated, your skin look wrinkled and tired rather than glowing and radiant. Sometimes you can even be so parched that your eyes won’t even be able to manufacture tears and your eyes can become red, irritated and feel scratchy. You may not even be able to cry proper tears, your mouth and nose may begin to feel irritated, and your breath may even begin to take on a foul odor… All because you didn’t stay hydrated!
So how can you make sure you’re doing your body a favor and giving it what it needs?
First of all, don’t always rely on thirst to be your gauge, as sometimes by the time you are thirsty, you are already experiencing a significant deficit. Just keep in mind that most days you need an average to 6-8 eight ounces glasses of hydrating beverages daily. Fluids like milk and juice are good to include as they are mostly water and do serve to boost and replenish your reserves. Again, avoid alcohol, which will dehydrate you. In general, try to avoid most sport beverages unless you have really been perspiring as they contain a lot of sugar and aren’t always the best sources of electrolytes.
If water intake is so important, is it possible to consume too much water? Believe it or not, it is! In fact, if you drink excessive amounts of water without enough salt, a condition known as hyponatremia can occur, which means that the sodium levels in your blood are too low. Inadequate levels of sodium in your body are dangerous too as cellular function can be adversely affected. A good general rule of thumb is to maintain an intake of about 64 ounces of hydrating beverages daily. Keep in mind that if you are losing fluids through illness or exercise, your needs will be greater and you will need to stay tuned to those subtle signs that we mentioned earlier. If you think you may be dehydrated and can’t maintain your fluid intake, sometimes a trip to your doctor may be needed for intravenous re-hydration. It’s always better if you can hydrate orally, but if fluids won’t stay down, give your doctor a call for guidance. And also remember that as the weather gets warmer and the temperatures soar, your hydration needs will increase as well.
So remember to keep working out, keep drinking your fluids and getting your rest. The simple truths still matter the most. Until next time….
Elizabeth Salada MD, MPH
Internal Medicine and Wellness