Which health goal do you hope to finally conquer in the new year? Mine is to hydrate more. We’ve all heard the recommendation of drinking eight glasses of water a day. After once suffering an acute kidney trauma, and later landing in the ER hooked up to an intravenous pole, I finally took hydration more seriously. But how much water do we really need, and is it a one-amount-fits all approach? It turns out there are many ways to maximize hydration without chugging all day. Hydration needs vary between individuals.
Some health care professionals advocate drinking half your body weight in ounces. That would leave me running to the restroom all day. But it makes sense that if our bodies are up to 70% water and we lose water by sweating, sneezing and breathing, we should replenish it regularly throughout the day!
To learn more about how to hydrate without bursting the bladder, I read the book Quench by Dana Cohen. The fact that the co-author, Gina Bria, was an anthropologist studying the hydration of desert populations captured my attention. I had spent part of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, and I often wondered how people managed in the sweltering sands. Cohen and Bria propose “eating your water.” For those of us who are not natural guzzlers, they thankfully advocate other ways to maximize our fluids. Somehow we can still survive without toting gallon-size Hydro- flasks, as if embarking on a desert expedition.
Under Hydrating- the New Smoking?
The authors of Quench assert that even mild dehydration- a 2% decrease in hydration levels- can impact blood vessels the same way a cigarette does. First, we heard that sitting is the new smoking. Now, is under-hydrating the new smoking? It turns out that our body uses fluid in countless ways and water acts in even more industrious ways than previously thought.
Water helps to promote cell function, maintain temperature regulation, increase blood flow, and lubricate joints. Not only do we move better with water, we see better too. Also, water protects the brain and assists in the biochemical breakdown of what we eat: it turns food into energy. It also helps our bladder and colon eliminate toxic wastes. Thus water helps us eat and breathe and perform countless other daily bodily functions that we rarely stop to consider. Hydrating regularly is all the more important for those with extra risk factors like diabetes and heart disease. In fact, under-hydrating can contribute to these conditions, among many other chronic conditions.
The late Dr F. Batmanghelid spent twenty years of his life studying the effects of dehydration and wrote: You’re Not Sick, You’re Thirsty, inspired by the many conditions he helped to treat with water during his time as a political prisoner in Iran. This book opened my eyes, but Dr. Dana Cohen’s book Quench is what finally convicted me and caused me to change my habits. For a sneak preview, you can check out the RaceMob running podcast interview here.
How to Hydrate in Harsh Environments
I used to wonder how the Middle Easterners obtained water from their sparse landscape. My father worked in a water desalination plant in Saudi Arabia, which helped convert seawater to drinking water- but how did people survive before these technologies existed? And how did women handle wearing black abayas, in the sweltering sun. It turns out their clothing serves as natural moisturizing tents, fueled by their breath and perspiration, which help to keep their skin moist. Since skin is our largest organ, it helps to keep it moist in order to reduce inflammation.
Unlike camels, we can last only a few days without drinking, not weeks. Camels store fat in their humps, which they use as a source of energy as an extra fuel tank when water and food is scarce. (Apparently a camel is a symbol in Alcoholics Anonymous for going a long time between drinks. When I was mistaken for an AA member, I stopped wearing my Saudi gold camel.) Camels have developed adaptations that accommodate for wide fluxes in hydration. And their blood volume and flow does not drop when water levels drop. They can also stock up on water, gulping up to thirty gallons of water in thirteen minutes!
Even without the presence of an extra hump or fuel tank to draw energy, Bedouins also learn to cope in temperatures that surpass 110 degrees in summer. They learn to sip their liquids so it does not pour right through them like a dry plant. Unlike camels, humans tend to lose blood volume as their water levels drop. But just like camel’s humps deflate when they use up their energy source of fat, our energy deflates with a lack of water.
Electrolytes and Gel
While many North Americans consume a few cups of coffee to start the day, desert dwellers consume camel milk or goat milk. They also slather goat milk and ghee butter on bread and in food, which provide electrolytes. Similarly, we can jump start our hydration by consuming two cups of water in the morning with a pinch of salt.
If you are curious about camel products, you can visit the Oasis Camel Dairy Farm in San Diego on select weekends. But it will be a lot more convenient to try other Bedouin strategies like eating cucumbers or fruits that contain water. To make hydration benefits go further, you can munch on an apple with a glass of water, as the fruit acts like a sponge to retain water. In fact, researchers have discovered that the water in the human body is similar to the gel-type substance found in plants.
This principal has been noted even in the Himalayas and high Andes- where people heated starch grains to maximize hydration, and hydrated by eating stews and adding grains, herbs, seeds and roots to their diet. We can do the same today. Quench co-author anthropologist Gina Bria suggests adding a tablespoon of chia seeds to smoothies in the morning. Bria stumbled upon these gel-like properties of water when studying desert populations, and by studying the world’s leading water researchers. She also discovered that often-dehydrated populations, like the elderly, benefitted from a tablespoon of chia seeds in their morning beverage to boost their hydration.
The Supercharging Properties of Water
While such hydrating strategies have been used for thousands of years, the science behind it is so new that researchers don’t even know what to call the gel form of water. It turns out that water is much more complex than two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. And how these states of water behave in different stages affect how our biological systems stay in balance.
Scientists like Dr. Pollack at the University of Washington have found that the gel-like substance in water actually causes electrical and chemical reactions. So it appears that water is not just a solvent to lubricate our joints, but it can help our cells repair and regenerate.
This “structured water,” or as some scientists call it or EZ water, requires exposure to water to maintain the gel water in our body. And we can access this energy charge by keeping our bodies well-hydrated. Thus it makes sense to eat foods like plants that obtain direct energy from the sun, as opposed to just animal products. Animals offer a slightly diluted form of energy, as animals use up some of the sun’s energy in order to hunt for food.
It makes sense, therefore, that eating moisture-containing foods that are as close to their natural state as possible help us gain the full hydration benefits.
The Facts about Fascia
It used to be thought that fascia was like a plastic wrap over your muscles, but did not serve much function. It turns out, they actually help transport water. A French surgeon discovered this when he put a fiber-optic camera under the skin of a patient and discovered it pulsed and moved! If it sounds like science fiction, it is not: fascia is a water delivery system to irrigate our tissue.
This is why it helps to keep moving and gently stretches or yoga and tai chi, to keep our fascia from getting too tight and to help move bodily fluids. This helps us with our breathing and our digestion, in order to eliminate waste. At the very least we can maintain a straight posture. Fascia is used to keep our spines from blocking the flow of fluids in our body and to cushion our joints.
Dr. Cohen in Quench reminds us that fascia is not just a hydraulic system, but an electrical system made out of water: it transmits electrical signals! There are forty-seven miles of nerves in the body, but even more miles of fascia. It surrounds every organ and vessel in the body. There is a lot going on in our cells and fluids that help the body perform at its best. This is why treatments like acupuncture or myofascial release can also help our muscles to move better, as they release blockages in the fascia.
The Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar Link
Speaking of maintaining optimal flow, under-hydrating is like sucking a milkshake through a thin straw: our blood becomes thicker. Instead of flowing smoothly like liquid, it becomes more like ketchup. This can contribute to high blood pressure, not to mention inflammation. Instead of popping more blood pressure pills, it might be helpful to reach for the water bottle.
Under-hydrating also affects blood sugar because glucose levels rise when there is not enough fluid to dilute all the sugar. Dehydration then causes even more blood sugar issues…and the cycle continues. If you struggle with insulin resistance, despite a low-sugar diet and a healthy exercise regiment, consuming more fluids might be your answer! You may even lose weight in the process. On the flip side, under-hydrating can sometimes cause water retention and weight gain.
Drinking a lot of water may make us feel like water balloons, but we are more than sophisticated hydration systems for our organs and vessels. Water can help to supercharge our cells and energize our bodies. But before dousing muscles and organs with liters of fluid, don’t forget you can also “eat your water.” If you are a natural guzzler, remember to add minerals: You don’t want to flush out sodium and electrolytes, or you may feel just as dizzy as with not drinking enough!
The next time you feel that brain fog, grab some water, and it will improve your focus. The brain, after all, contains a lot of water. Moving better and thinking more clearly: let’s all drink to that. Power up your day by drinking water, but don’t be like a camel and go too long between hydration refills.