Hydration and myths- how much water do I really need?

Note: I am not a medical professional! I merely researched articles and reputable sites (listed below), and summarized the information to give you a starting point for your own research. Please talk to your doctor regarding any questions you may have about dehydration and water intake.

In numerous verses, the Bible refers to water as “life” or “living,” and it’s true– water and life are irrevocably tied. You’ve probably heard that the human body can survive three weeks without food but only three days without water. I’m sure you’ve also been told the human body is 65 percent water. And many Americans believe that 75 percent of our population is chronically dehydrated. We’ve been told for decades to consume at least eight glasses of water a day, and coffee dehydrates us. As well, you can drink too much water. But is all of this really true? How much water does the body really need?

I struggle to drink enough water. I know when I’m dehydrated, because I’ll get a headache. Eventually, if I don’t get enough water into my system, I’ll even get nauseated. In fact, my first couple months of deployment, many of my peers suspected I was pregnant, because I kept vomiting! Finally, I figured out that while deployed I needed to drink at least one bottle of water every hour I was awake.

Here at home, I have water just a few feet away from me, but I know I don’t drink enough. Half the time it doesn’t even cross my mind or I’m just too busy to stop and drink! But a couple days ago, I got to the point where I was nauseated with a headache. About an hour after I drank several glasses, I started to feel better. That got me thinking; hence, this post.

So what can happen if I’m dehydrated?

Towards the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I spent one weekend providing public affairs coverage for several Army Reserve units at a local National Guard base. In other words, I followed them around from location to location (weapons range, to obstacle course, to land navigation course, etc.), photographing Soldiers, asking questions, and recording information. There really wasn’t a good source of water for us to hydrate, and it was unusually hot that weekend. I know, I should have prepared better. When I woke up Monday morning for work, my bedroom spinned and spinned. (TMI-alert>) I was so ill, I actually collapsed on the living room floor and vomited everywhere. I kept trying to hydrate, but every time I drank water, I threw it up again. Eventually my parents drove me to labor & delivery (Hubby was deployed), where I received two bags of fluids intravenously, anti-nausea meds, and anti-vertigo meds. It ended well, but it could have been very bad.

Dehydration can result in:

  • heat cramps
  • heat exhaustion
  • heat stroke
  • swelling of the brain (when rehydrating)
  • seizures
  • low blood volume shock
  • kidney failure
  • coma
  • death

How do I know it’s dehydration? 

Symptoms of dehydration:

If it’s mild to moderate-

  • dry mouth
  • thirst
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • constipation
  • decreased urine output
  • For more symptoms, click HERE.

If it’s severe-

  • sunken eyes
  • rapid heart beat
  • rapid breath
  • fever
  • delirium
  • little or no urination
  • For more symptoms, click HERE.

How do I treat dehydration?

If it’s mild dehydration in a healthy adult, it can usually be treated by drinking more water and sport drinks with electrolytes. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is possible to make an oral rehydration solution if necessary, but they caution to measure ingredients carefully. If you’re suspicious it’s severe hydration, call a doctor right away, or call 911, or report to your nearest ER. If it’s a dehydrated child or older adult, err on the side of caution, even if you don’t think it’s severe.

How do I prevent dehydration?

Certain risk groups should take extra care to stay hydrated: older adults, those with chronic illnesses, endurance athletes, those who work outdoors in the heat, and those who live at high altitudes. Pregnant and nursing mothers are also advised to drink plenty of water.

You need more fluids if you’re suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, fever, sweating, or increased urine output. Infants should continue to nurse or drink formula. Ask your pediatrician about giving your baby oral hydration drinks as a preventive measure. For a child, you can stave off dehydration by encouraging them to drink plenty of water and/or giving them fluids like Pedialyte. Adults should drink water and sports drinks.

If you’re not at risk, then the Institute of Medicine recommends per day about 13 cups ( 3 liters) of beverages for men and 9 cups (2.2 liters) of beverages for women. However, some physicians like Heinz Valtin, MD, professor emeritus of physiology at Dartmouth Medical School and Penn State researcher Barbara Rolls, believe that the average healthy adult needs even less than this. They also believe since many foods contain water, what you eat counts towards your intake goal.

 The Myths:

  • Drink eight 8oz. glasses of water a day- easy to remember but not actually true
  • Our bodies are 65% water- the exact percentage is debated, but a healthy adult of average build is at least 50% water
  • We can only survive three days without water- there’s not a lot of definitive data on this, for obvious reasons, but there have been cases where humans survived a week or more without water. One Japanese man reportedly survived 24 day without food or water, although doctors are not sure how.
  • At least 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated- I sifted through dozens of websites that made this claim, but couldn’t find the origin or any actual scientific data to prove this is true.
  • Caffeine dehydrates, so lay off the coffee- actually, there’s research that contradicts this, but it remains a point of controversy in online communities.
  • You can drink too much water- rare but possible. In this case, your kidneys would be unable to excrete the extra water you drank, resulting in hyponatremia, a serious drop of sodium levels in your blood.
Conclusion:

The more I researched, the more I realized there are many variables to how much water your body actually needs. Bottom line, it depends on the person, location, diet, temperature, and level of activity. Perhaps the easiest way to monitor your level of hydration is to keep an eye on your urine. I’ll admit- there are “experts” out there that claim even this is misleading, but for me, it’s fairly accurate (I know from my Army experiences). You want your urine to be a pale yellow. If it’s not, drink more water!

Urine Color Test

Sources:

  1. Dartmouth News
  2. How Stuff Works
  3. Idaho.gov
  4. The Mayo Clinic
  5. Vanderbilt University Health Psychology
  6. WebMD

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