Wellness for Activists: You probably aren’t drinking enough water

Wellness for Activists: You probably aren’t drinking enough water

Welcome to my weekly feature covering ways us activists can lead healthier lives. For a full explanation check out the inaugural edition here, but in short, most of us do a terrible job of taking care of our minds and bodies. This is a science-based exploration of how to change that, so we can be around for many years of fruitful activism. You can find other articles in this series here.

You don’t drink enough water. 

An oft-cited 1998 survey by New York Hospital and Cornell of 3,003 Americans found that 75% were chronically dehydrated, a number that has been repeated by follow-up surveys in the years since. For example, this survey for appliance maker Bosch found that just 22% of Americans drank the recommended 8-10 glasses of water a day (64-80 ounces, or 1.9-2.4 liters). We’ll talk about actual water requirements in a little bit, but it’s not a stretch to say that hydration is an oft-neglected part of our busy daily lives, easy to forget and ignore. Yet the health consequences are considerable. 

Around 60% of our bodies are made up of water, and that number is much higher in our most important organs—73% of our brain and heart, and 83% of our lungs. Thus, the impact of dehydration on our well-being can be severe. 

If that percentage drops 1-2%, it impacts your physical work ability, makes you feel tired and lethargic. (That amounts to 2-3 pounds of water weight for a typical person.)

A 2% drop in water weight is where you start feeling thirsty. This level of dehydration impacts your mood, increases your heart rate, and makes you irritable. 

Once you lose 4% of your water weight, your blood pressure drops, and your ability to sweat is impacted, increasing chances of overheating. 

And at 7%, you risk organ damage. 

Obviously, those last two are pretty severe instances, and you are unlikely to get there absent severe water restriction and/or hot weather. But 1-4% is merely losing a few pounds of water, and remaining at those lower levels for extended periods of time has consequences, like kidney stones, hypertension, urinary tract infections, and decreased kidney and intestinal function. Dehydration thickens your blood and forces your circulatory system to work harder. Research from the University of Connecticut found that at just 1.36% dehydration, participants experienced “degraded mood, increased perception of task difficulty, lower concentration, and headache symptoms.” Speaking of headaches, improper hydration is a migraine trigger

Dehydration impacts brain function. One study leads with this terrifying sentence: “It was recently observed that dehydration causes shrinkage of brain tissue and an associated increase in ventricular volume.” The conclusion wasn’t any less scary: “prolonged states of reduced water intake may adversely impact executive functions such as planning and visuo-spatial processing.” Another study concluded that “mild dehydration without hyperthermia in men induced adverse changes in vigilance and working memory, and increased tension/anxiety and fatigue.” Indeed, dehydration can cause or exacerbate midday fatigue. 

Proper hydration ensures that your joints are properly lubricated. The folks over at the Arthritis Foundation write that “If there’s a magical elixir to drink, it’s water. Hydration is vital for flushing toxins out of your body, which can help fight inflammation. Adequate water intake can help keep your joints well lubricated and prevent gout attacks.” So yes, dehydration can make osteoarthritis pain worse. Makes sense—joint cartilage is mostly water. 

Among the elderly, a meta review of 15 studies found that  dehydration “is directly associated with an increase in hospital mortality, as well as with an increase in the utilization of ICU, short and long term care facilities, readmission rates and hospital resources, especially among those with moderate to severe hyponatremia [a low-sodium condition].” 

On the plus side, increased water intake has numerous benefits. Last week, we discussed how drinking water before meals can help burn extra calories: “Additionally, drinking water boosts your metabolism by up to 30% for an hour after drinking, burning extra calories. I carry a jug of water around with me and sip on it all day. One study found that drinking a half liter (17 ounces) of water before a meal helped dieters lose 44% more weight compared to people who didn’t drink that water.” 

Quite obviously, hydration is important for proper physical performance. And quite obviously, drinking enough water helps prevent all the horrible things discussed above. 

How much water should I drink?

The typical recommendation is 8-10 glasses of water a day, or 64-80 ounces (1.9-2.4 liters). Funny thing is, that’s not a number based on any science, and ignores the dramatic differences between us, from sex, to age, to weight and size, to levels of activity, to ambient temperatures, to who knows what else. 

The U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommend the following: 

  • About 15.5 (8 ounce) cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men
  • About 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women

Now that includes water in foods, which account for 20% of the total. That’s still around 12 cups for men, and 9 for women. Those numbers were derived from “detailed national data” of people who “appear to be adequately hydrated.” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the most rigorous scientific method. And truth is, given the many factors involved, it’s likely impossible to offer a scientific answer that applies to everyone. So what can you do? 

First of all, if you only drink when you’re thirsty, then you are chronically dehydrated. Look at the top of this article: thirst appears at a 2% drop in your water weight, but impairment begins at 1%. So while drinking when thirsty limits damage, it doesn’t prevent it. And how many of you ignore thirst at least some of the time, regardless? You can’t base your hydration needs on thirst. 

There are two ways to gauge your hydration: 

1. You just don’t feel thirsty, or rarely do so.

2. Your urine is clear/colorless. The more yellow it is, the less hydrated you are. 

What this means is find a baseline. You can even try the eight cups thing, and then gauge your hydration levels with the two-pronged test above. If all is clear and you are feeling satiated, then you’re good! Otherwise, kick up your intake and monitor. And remember that changes in temperature and activity levels require continuous adjustment.

Strategies for proper hydration

If you are like many people, the idea of drinking eight or more glasses of water a day could seem horrifying. As in, gag-inducing horrifying. Here are some strategies to make it easier to do so. 

This one is 64 oz.

1. Carry a jug around with you. I carry a big blue 40 oz thermos, and make sure I drink through it twice a day. I literally walk around with it everywhere I go, taking little sips every couple of minutes. It’s so big and colorful that as long as I keep it near me it’s hard to miss, constantly reminding me to take a sip.  My friend bought a motivational 64-oz. jug (pictured here) that has worked out fantastic for her. 

It’s easier to count your water consumption this way, rather than try to remember if you’ve had 6 or 9 glasses already. 

2. Find excuses to drink other beverages. I chug 20 ounces of water mixed with my preworkout powder before my workout, and then I do a post-workout protein smoothie afterward measuring another 20 oz. Along with my big thermos of water, that means that I drink 120 oz every day, and my urine is clear and I feel great. Remember that coffee and tea count toward your total. The old notion that caffeine was a diuretic is bunk. Drink smoothies, or hot chocolate, or herbal iced tea. You get the idea. Just avoid sugary drinks. 

3. Eat hydrating foods. I’d avoid fruit juices, as they are effectively sugar water, but fruits themselves (and their fiber) are fantastic sources of water. Cook with sauces. Eat soup. Acai bowls are amazing. Salads are crazy rich in water—lettuce and cucumber are both 96% water. Okay okay, if you must, cutting fruit juices with water is a great way to keep (most of) the flavor but cut the calories down. 

4. Make water more palatable. If I had to drink 120 oz of plain water, I’d likely hurl. Why I do is I alternate between Sodastream fizzy water, and plain water but with half a lemon or lime squeezed in. My friend with the jug adds a little bit of fizzy water so it’s lightly carbonated. There is zero-calorie flavoring you can add as well. Steep fruits (like strawberries or raspberries) or vegetables (like cucumbers or lemon slices) in a pitcher filled with water. Some people like mint. 

5. Work out. You’ll have every excuse and motivation to drink before and after. Like I said, 40 oz of my daily water intake revolves around my fitness. 

6. Drink a glass before every meal. As mentioned before, not only will this help you control your calories, but that’s an easy 24 oz. for your daily total if you eat three meals, at a time when you’re primed to drink water anyway. Drink another glass during your meal, and you’ve made a serious dent into your daily goal. Make your meal spicy or salty, and you’ll be extra motivated to drink more. 

7. Refill empty jug/pitcher/glass/cup as soon as it’s empty. Don’t let empty water receptacles sit there, all lonely and bereft of refreshing water. Even if I’ve reached my limit in the evening, I’ll refill my big blue thermos so it’s ready for my next sip, even if it doesn’t take place until the next morning. You can’t drink water that hasn’t been served.  

8. Drink a glass of water when you wake up, and yes, at bedtime. Not only are you waking up dehydrated from hours without water, but this is a must if you are prone to headaches or migraines.  Drinking a glass at night will minimize that long period of dehydration and minimize morning bad breath and dry mouth. If you’re worried about waking up too frequently to pee, then experiment with drinking that last glass a bit earlier, until you find the right time. 

The downside

I’m not going to lie: If you are hydrating properly, you’ll be going to the bathroom at least hourly. That can truly get annoying. Dehydration isn’t as …. intrusive in your daily life. But look at that as an opportunity: Take a sip after you’re done. And getting up and walking has its own health benefits. As you may have heard, sitting too much is the devil. So that regular trip to the bathroom does double duty, which means that it is not a downside!

Conclusion

It’s important to note that for most people, proper hydration is a mindful practice, and you have to be cognizant and on top of it. You do that, and eventually it becomes routine. If I walk into a room without my big blue thermos I feel naked, as if I’ve forgotten my phone or wallet, and I rush to wherever it is I last left it. 

Just like walking and healthy weight management, this isn’t really an optional practice. These are the very basic things you need to do avoid the vast majority of lifestyle ailments—those diseases and conditions that are avoidable with a few tweaks to how you lead your daily life. So give it a shot! It’s all upside. 

If you like this information, remember that you can find other articles in this series focusing on helping you live a fruitful and healthy life. 

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