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The Lowdown on Hydration

August 19, 2014 1:49 am
Published by: Dr. Ann Lovick

You need to hydrate.

How many times have you heard that one? (And how many times have you heard it from me?)

That’s because water is essential to life. In fact, our bodies are 60-75% H2O. It is the fuel and lubrication that keeps us healthy and balanced.

Water keeps our cells working, blood flowing, neurons firing and our various wastes from accumulating and making us sick. It is also the secret to glowing skin and staying trim.

But how much water should we actually drink – especially here in the desert? What is healthy? When is drinking water harmful? And how do we time our water intake to maximize health (and minimize toilet trips at night)?

Bodies of water

Water is involved in almost every important function in our body.

If you want to get into the biochemistry – water can be both an acid and a base – that is, it can both break chemicals bonds and help to form them. This is fairly unique at the cellular level. And it’s critical for the DNA, cells and bacteria that build our tissues and organs and regulate our body.

So think of drinking water like the oil in your car. Changed regularly, the car runs smoothly. If not, the works get gummed up, cause all kinds of problems and then completely break you down.

This is because two things are constantly happening with our body fluids: filtration and excretion. Our kidneys filter an astonishing 200 quarts of blood each day, which produces about two quarts of waste-containing urine that we excrete. Our wastes also exit through our largest organ – the skin – through perspiration, which requires – no surprise here – water.

These processes are constant whether we consume water or not. When we don’t, we lose more water than we take in and get dehydrated; we essentially dry out and slow to a stop. But even the slightest dehydration can have the following effects:

Headaches – Dehydration is one of the primary causes of headaches. It causes blood vessels to constrict and although ibuprofen and Tylenol might mask the pain, it doesn’t correct the problem.
Constipation – Water keeps us regular. When stool become immobile in the colon, it starts to break down like any other form of garbage. This promotes growth of bad bacteria and releases toxins into the bloodstream.
Stress and fatigue – Since water is essential to human function, a lack of water is stressful triggering the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. When our bodies are in stress mode without a physical threat present, we sleep poorly, overeat sugars and retain fat.

Dehydration also can increase blood pressure and stress the heart; it can cause gallstones and kidney stones, and distort nerve impulses.

On the flipside, drinking too much water – called hyponatremia – is also dangerous. Electrolytes like sodium and potassium in our system conduct nerve impulses. Millions of electrolyte molecules enter and exit our cells to make this happen. Drink too much water and these get flushed away. Without electrolytes our cells can’t function properly. Extreme cases cause death.

So replenishing our water supply in a balanced way is essential for optimal health.

How to hydrate

While everyone’s body needs and daily exertion are different, a good rule of thumb is to drink half your weight in pounds each day in ounces of water.

For example, a person weighing 120 pounds, should strive to drink about 60 ounces of water each day. A typical glass is 8 oz. so that’s about 8 glasses a day. Or, in liters — as often seen on store-bought water bottles — about two a day (one liter = ~34 oz.) in the example.

That said, you have to listen to your body. If you are thirsty, that is a sign to drink more water. If you’re feeling full, bloated or “sloshing” — that’s a sure sign to stop.

Another good way to tell your hydration level is urinate. If your urine is clear or pale yellow, you have enough water in your system – the wastes are diluted. If your urine is darker yellow, this means there is a higher concentration of wastes present, which is often the case when we wake in the morning.

In fact, I recommend drinking the most water – up to half your daily amount — first thing in the morning to flush out toxins that accumulate overnight. While your own intake will vary, I usually have between 1-2 quarts before I get to work (and know all the Circle Ks, grocery stores and other public restrooms between my house and the office!)

To avoid multiple bathroom visits during the night, cut your water intake after dinner. If you’re a night owl, drink after dinner only when you get thirsty.

What about exercise?

When we exercise, the body expands blood vessels near the skin and perspires to cool our blood and bodies off. As we perspire, we lose fluids.

Heavy exercise is water intensive. It is critical to be hydrated before, during and after exercise. This helps maintain a constant level in your body and keeps it in balance.

The key is having enough water in your body to begin with. I recommend hydrating at least 60-90 minutes before exercise. You want enough to fuel and cool but not so much that you are feeling bloated or getting stomach cramps. This article recommends about 17-25 oz. per hour for athletes.

Take a water bottle with you to the gym or on your run and sip water at regular intervals throughout your exercise.

After exercise, drink a glass of water and proceed with your regular recovery process.

Here’s a water and exercise tip: Since we lose electrolytes when we exercise, an easy way to replenish them is to add a pinch of sea salt to your water bottle. This is a much easier and natural way to accomplish what Gatorade, Vitamin Water, etc. try to do with added sugars and chemicals. With the pinch, your water will remain tasteless but your body will thank you.

Overall, our goals with water intake should always be mindfulness and balance. Keeping abundant water levels in your body is a building block of excellent health.