H20 helps keep our minds sharp and helps our bodies perform at their peak. But how do you know if you’re getting enough?
By Christine Yu
When Yvette S. arrives at her office in Manhattan each morning, she fills a 20-ounce glass with water. Then, she arranges six sticky notes on her computer monitor, each marked with the number “20.”
Every time she finishes a glass, she removes one note from her monitor.
Yvette knows it’s important to stay hydrated. It helps her feel refreshed and keeps her thirst in check. Clearer skin is a nice perk, too. So, she aims to drink 120 ounces of water before the end of the workday.
“That way, I don’t stress about my water intake when I get home,” she says.
Like Yvette, Katie M. keeps a close watch on her fluid intake. Every Monday morning, the corporate executive from St. Louis, Missouri, reviews her weekly calendar and blocks off two to three breaks during each day.
When a reminder pops up on the computer, Katie springs into action. “I run to the restroom, fill up my water bottle, and take the long way around the office to stretch my legs,” she says. “Otherwise I would stay at my desk all day.”
Yvette and Katie aren’t the only ones concerned about hydration. For many, water bottles are as essential an accessory as a wallet or cell phone.
And for good reason. Water makes up approximately 60 percent of our bodies and over 70 percent of our brain and heart. Water helps with digestion, nutrient absorption, waste removal, and body temperature regulation. It also keeps your joints and organs cushioned.
In short, water is a critical part of a healthy lifestyle.
Beyond a Parched Mouth
There are many reasons you may struggle to drink enough fluids during the day—from not wanting to deal with the hassle of going to the bathroom to simply forgetting to refill your glass. This may help explain why roughly 75 percent of Americans are in chronic state of dehydration, a condition that can affect your physical, mental, and emotional health.
“Water flushes out the toxins that are the normal byproduct of our metabolic reactions,” says British Columbia-based registered dietitian Tristaca Curley. “When we don’t get enough fluids, these metabolic reactions slow down,” she says.
Research has found that inadequate fluid intake can make it harder for your digestive system to do its work. The result? You end up backed up. One such study showed a higher prevalence of constipation in both young women, as well as older people, when dehydrated.
If you haven’t had enough to drink, your brain can feel foggy. Inadequate hydration decreases the delivery of nutrients, like glucose, to the brain. “If not enough sugar is supplied to fuel your brain, your brain will not be able to function adequately,” says Charlene Pors, a registered dietitian at Euphoria Nutrition in Kelowna, British Columbia.
Your brain also needs glucose to create neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that communicate between the brain and other parts of your body.
Together, the lack of glucose to fuel your brain’s activity and to manufacture neurotransmitters can negatively impact your overall cognition, mood and brain function, says Pors.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that mild dehydration in young women lowered concentration and made tasks feel more difficult, both at rest and during exercise. It also adversely affected mood. According to a study in the British Journal of Nutrition, men with mild dehydration found it harder to concentrate and experienced greater fatigue and headaches.
When you are properly hydrated, by contrast, you’re likely to feel perkier, more motivated, and energized. You may even notice that you experience fewer cravings, since you’re not mistaking your thirst for hunger, says Curley.
Key to Physical Performance
Hydration can have a big impact on physical performance. The amount of water in your body affects your blood and plasma volume. Lower fluid intake, coupled with bigger fluid loss from sweat, can lead to greater cardiovascular strain.
“Your heart has to work at a harder rate to make sure blood flows to the areas of the body that needs it,” says William Adams, PhD, vice president of sport safety at the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute.
“Anything above 2 percent dehydration, and you will start to see performance deficits,” he adds, noting that these problems may include reduced endurance, increased fatigue, and increased perceived effort.
When you’re well hydrated before and during your workout, you minimize fluid and performance losses.
Just ask Jonathan L.
The Boston resident started paying attention to hydration when he began running more seriously. He says he feels fresher and more energized when he drinks more water.
“It’s important for recovery, too. The better I can recover, the better I feel—and I notice it in my workouts,” he says.
However, if you’re exercising in the heat and humidity for long periods of time, such as during an endurance event like a marathon, be aware that you can drink too much water—especially the longer you’re out on the race course.
This can lead to a condition called hyponatremia, which causes abnormally low blood-sodium levels, causing health problems such as nausea, mental confusion and lethargy and, in rare cases, death.
“If you’re doing intense exercise in the heat for longer than 70 to 90 minutes, supplementing with a sports drink is helpful,” Adams says. These not only contain electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, but also carbohydrates like glucose to replenish your energy stores.
How Much do I Need?
While you’ve probably been told to drink eight glasses of water a day, hydration guidelines aren’t so cut and dry.
“Everyone has different fluid needs, depending on their sex, where they live, and their activity level,” says Pors.
For example, when the temperature rises, you sweat more to control your body’s core temperature. If you live in a warmer climate or it’s summer, you’ll need to drink more to replenish lost fluids.
Altitude matters, too. When Kirk B. first moved to Colorado, he didn’t drink nearly as much water as his body needed, resulting in daily headaches. At the time, he didn’t know that our bodies lose more water through respiration at higher elevations.
“After I realized this, I began to make a conscious effort to get in plenty of water throughout the day,” says Kirk. He now starts his day with a tall glass of water and keeps a full cup nearby throughout the day, refilling it every couple of hours.
Chronic health conditions, including diabetes, can also affect your hydration needs. High blood glucose levels can force your kidneys to work overtime, requiring more fluids to flush your system.
Pors recommends adult women over the age of 19 drink on average 2.2 liters of liquids—or approximately nine cups—per day. Adult men should drink 3 liters, or roughly 12 cups.
Your drinks can include water, coffee, and tea (so long as caffeine doesn’t make up the majority of your fluids), milk, juice, and soup. Unsweetened seltzer is OK, too. However, if you have digestive discomfort, you may want to skip carbonated beverages since they can increase bloating and gas, Curley cautions.
Listen to Your Body
Many of us have our own methods to gauge if we’re staying hydrated. You may set daily goals for the volume of liquid you consume. Others, like Jennifer Y., track bathroom breaks.
As a physician, the California ophthalmologist is accustomed to monitoring her patients’ fluid intake and output. Naturally, she thinks about her own in a similar fashion. “If I didn’t have to go to the bathroom during my morning patient appointments, then I know I didn’t drink enough,” she says.
“In general, if fluids are readily available, you do a pretty good job maintaining homeostasis throughout the day,” says Adams. “Your brain tells you when you need to drink by telling you you’re thirsty.”
Your body also has a way of letting you know when you’re overdoing it: A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you take in excess fluids, it actually takes three times more effort to swallow liquid.
When you do experience an unquenchable thirst, you’re already dehydrated. The key, then, is to be proactive.
“Drink throughout the day to avoid actually becoming thirsty,” Pors says. And remember: Your thirst sensation decreases as you age, so you may need to be more diligent about your intake.
Another tried-and-true way to monitor hydration levels is to check the color of your pee. Look for a pale, lemonade-like color, says Curley. If your urine is dark yellow, you should probably drink something.
That said, the color of your urine may also be affected by the food and supplements you’ve recently consumed.
“Riboflavin or vitamin B12 can cause a yellowy/green color, and certain foods can also affect urine,” Pors notes. Beets can cause your urine to take on a pink hue, while asparagus can cause a sulfur smell.
If you exercise regularly, taking a sweat test will determine your fluid needs during and after your workout.
Here’s how you do it: Simply weigh yourself, exercise for an hour, and then weigh yourself again.
“Your loss in body weight is what you’ve lost in fluid,” says Adams. For example, every pound lost equals a 16-ounce fluid deficit. “Aim to drink that amount during your workout to help mitigate fluid loss,” he says. Your sweat rate will also change throughout the year, so it’s a good idea to take this test during different seasons.
As you begin to add more liquid to your day, don’t fret if you make more restroom stops. This is normal—and to be expected. Remember to start increasing your fluids gradually, Curley recommends. “Your body will adjust, so you won’t spend all day on the toilet.”
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5 Tips to Up Your Intake
- Make it routine: Just like any habit, your hydration needs to become part of the program. Jennifer, the ophthalmologist, makes a point of taking a sip of water every time she switches exam rooms. Since your body can’t absorb a huge intake of water all at once, it’s best to spread out your fluids throughout the day, advises Curley. Set an alarm on your phone or schedule water breaks in your calendar to remind you to drink consistently.
- Track It: If you have a hectic lifestyle, a tracking system can help you manage your fluid intake. There are a number of free and low-cost apps, like to help. Or go old school and track it with pen and paper.
- Bottle It: Find a water bottle that you love, and you’ll be more likely to use it. Set goals for yourself, too. Use rubber bands or mark your water bottle to help you keep tabs on your progress throughout the day.
- Stick with Unsweetened Beverages: While a sweet drink may taste good, stick to water or other beverages with no added sugar or sweeteners for your daily drink. Soda and sports drinks add extra sugar, calories, and artificial colors to your diet.
- Infuse it: If you’re tired of plain H2O, add fresh fruit like lemon, berries, or oranges to a big pitcher or your portable bottle for a subtle flavor. You can also jazz it up with herbs or cucumbers. Or try DIY fruit-infused ice cubes. With all the fruit hitting your local farmers markets this season, summertime is the perfect time to experiment!
Printed as “Hooray for H2O”, Fall 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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