I love the work of Batmanghelidj, the author of ‘Your body’s many cries for water’. He says that if your mouth’s dry, then it’s not an initial sign that you’re dehydrated. No, it’s actually a sign that you’re really lacking in the stuff that carries nutrients around your body, supports your cellular function and helps you to breathe and sweat! Not something to be overlooked then.
A really practical initial home test that we can do to assess if we’re dehydrated is to monitor our urine colour.
You may have heard that we’re made up of about 70% water. That’s true in theory, but cut yourself and you realise that we’re not made up of the same thing that runs out of the tap. The 70% is a mixture of different substances which sit inside and outside of our cells. The 70% water also contains; sodium chloride, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate and proteins.
The fluid in our body is a solvent which means that substances can be diluted into it. That makes it really useful for transporting solid matter such as nutrients, chemicals and even toxins. It does however, also support the elimination of waste and excess fluid.
*If you’re drinking plenty of fluids, but your urine colour is still dark, cloudy, or smells or if you’re experiencing persistent joint pain, then it may not only be a lack of water that’s the issue. If this is the case, then it’s really important that you have it investigated by your GP.
How does hydration and dehydration work in my body?
The kidneys are two small organs located several inches above the waist on either side of the body. Information is continually being relayed from your brain to the kidneys and from the kidneys to the brain. This continued feedback loop is in effect assessing the levels of substances in the blood, the rates of reabsorption of fluids and how much fluid is being eliminated.
When receptors in the brain register increased solutes (or solid matter) and less fluid in the blood, it releases Antidiuretic Hormone or ADH. This is a key hormone (or signalling messenger) which works to ensure that there is not an over production of urine. So, lessening the amount of fluid that the body loses. ADH works by signalling the levels of fluid being re-absorbed from the collection of vessels known as the renal tubules. When this registers as low, it signals the kidneys to release small amounts of stored fluid into the blood stream so that we’re not dehydrated.
ADH can also activate our blood vessels to increase the levels at which fluid is pumped around the body. On the other hand, another hormone Atrial Natriuretic Peptide (ANP) stops the activation of ADH and relaxes the kidney tubules so that more water can be reabsorbed in order to maintain healthy blood pressure levels. We can assist both of these by hydrating.
What happens in my body when I become dehydrated?
We lose fluid in our body because of two things a) when we’re not taking in enough or b) because we’re losing a lot of it through sweat, breathing, urinating, passing stools and even if ill, vomiting.
Staying hydrated isn’t only about maintaining fluid levels. It’s also about balancing the chemical components in the fluid. When there’s not enough water in our general circulation it may need to be extracted right down to the cellular level. It seems obvious, but if our cells become dehydrated then the components which create energy within these cells can become less effective. We can then become tired, fatigued and lethargic, but it also can become really dangerous.
What are some other signs that I may be dehydrated? Which of my organs does it affect and how?
Problem skin: Problem skin may be contributed to by excess sebum which makes it very oily. Dehydration and an unequal fluid balance can encourage excess sebum, making our skin even greasier or conversely causing dryness or skin irritations. See here for more information on problem skin.
Bad breath: Bad breath or halitosis can result from a number of factors. These include low saliva levels, high levels of bacteria, infection, poor oral hygiene or damage to tissue or teeth. It can also result from issues lower down in the gastro-intestinal tract. But simply breathing causes a loss of fluid and can create dryness and an accumulation of unhealthy bacteria.
UTIs (or Cystitis): The body uses many safeguards to ensure that chemicals and microbes stay in the right areas of our body, but this can sometimes be compromised. Similarly to when bacteria enter the large intestine causing bloating, pain and irritation, when bacteria move from the rear to the urethra there’s the potential for infection. This can then cause inflammation, irritation and often a lot of pain both when passing urine and even when not. It can also result in other confusing symptoms like brain fog sensation and even abdominal pain.
Antibiotics may be prescribed, but increasing water intake is important because bacteria thrive on glucose. Water is able to flush out excess glucose and other substances which may become stagnant in the area.
Gout: Uric acid is a by-product of the breakdown of purine nucleotides which form part of our DNA protein structure. Purines are also found in meat products. Our bodies should be able to readily eliminate uric acid but it can accumulate. This may be due to over production and excess or because of poor elimination. This is when the hard-salt crystals are formed and can become embedded in the joints, causing gout.
Gout can be particularly painful, creating swelling around the joints in the hands, feet and toes, but it can also affect the kidneys.
Joint pain: Our joints are located around the knees, hip, elbow and shoulders. They are held together by a sac or capsule which contains a type of fluid called synovial fluid. This is critical fluid contains nutrients which feed the cartilage around the joints. It also enables the joints to glide smoothly so that there is ease of movement and it contains immune cells which remove waste and harmful substances.
If this area becomes dry it can cause aggravation to the cartilage at the end of the joints by rubbing against tissue.
Constipation: When food is not properly eliminated it can cause hard matter to remain in the colon. This can cause unhealthy bacteria to collect and result in a lot of pain and bloating. There can be other reasons for constipation. Stress can cause the gut to become tight or spasmodic not allowing food to flow through easily. Even not making time to go to the toilet can create a sluggish colon.
Constipation is often contributed to a lack of fibre in the diet. But the situation can be exacerbated if there’s a lack of fluid as this needs to bind to the fibre to make an adequate stool.
What can I do to improve my hydration levels?
When you become dehydrated your thirst response is activated. Then once small amounts of fluid are detected by the sensory neurons in the mouth and eventually within the gastrointestinal tract, the thirst mechanism will be reduced. But this takes time. Remember Batmanghelidj’s cautioning? This is why it’s important to take small steady sips rather than gulping large amounts.
How much fluid should I be having?
One simple thing to consider is the amount of fluid that you take in and measure it in cups or glasses. The body can only survive for between 2 -5 days without water. Even before this, the body will start to show signs of deterioration. The recommendation is for 6-8 glasses of fluid every day.
If you’re at a loss as to how to make water more interesting consider these:
Natural flavours: Adding fruit and vegetables like orange, lemon, lime, strawberries, ginger or even cucumber can give water an added zing. It can make it even more refreshing in the warmer months too.
Herbal teas: Herbal teas are a great way to add a non-caffeinated flavour to water. Try to go for those that don’t have diuretic properties such as dandelion, parsley or hibiscus and instead go for peppermint, camomile, ginger, apple or elderberry.
Increase water rich foods: There are many foods which have a high-water content such as cucumber, spinach, apples, watermelon, celery, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, fennel, courgettes, watercress, tomatoes, chicory, leek and parsley.
What else do I need to be aware of?
Alcohol: Of course, alcohol is made up of water but it also contains ethanol, sugar, yeast and raw ingredients like; barley, grapes, fermented rice, berries. Alcohol has the uncanny effect of making us pass more urine when the hormone vasopressin is activated. This can then leave more solutes in our system. So, even if we’re drinking a lot of alcohol it can actually be dehydrating rather than hydrating.
The NHS suggest that a 750ml bottle of red, white or rosé wine (ABV 13.5%) contains 10 units of alcohol. The weekly units per week for both men and woman 14. But you also have to consider your size and age.
The liver is key in breaking down alcohol, but continual overload can cause the liver to become sluggish. Simply drinking water regularly with alcohol can be very supportive.
Salt: Salt or sodium supports the maintenance of our fluid balance and blood pressure. But the larger the volume of water in the body, the harder the heart has to work to pump it around. On the other hand, having too much salt increases the solute levels which will mean that more fluid is need to dissolve them. The daily recommendation is not to exceed 6g of salt a day or 2.4g of sodium. It’s important to consider not only what’s added to food, but what’s already in food.
Stress: When we’re stressed or anxious we may reach for a number of drinks, but water may rarely be one of them. If we’re drinking copious amounts of caffeine or sugar laden drinks, then we’re actually heading towards dehydration. These drinks can also over-stimulate our body systems and deprive us of the essential nutrients that we actually need.
So, here’s to your health and drinking more water!
If you struggle to drink water, then sign up to the Water Challenge which is run on my Facebook page throughout June. Or if you want more personalised support contact me for a consultation and let’s see what we can do to get you feeling a whole lot better.
Batmanghelidj, F (1995) ‘Your body’s many cries for Water. Second edition. Global Health Solutions Inc, Falls Church, USA.