May 2022

Feeling better, one sip at a time

4 min read

A delicate balance

Our bodies represent an environment where everything — fluids, minerals, hormones — needs to be in a delicate balance for us to be and feel well. They work hard to maintain this balance and control things such as body temperature, blood sugar levels, and hydration. The kidneys do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to hydration levels. Every day, all the blood in our bodies passes through the kidneys about 40 times (link). This allows our kidneys to accurately measure how much water, salt and waste is in our blood at any moment and try to maintain optimal hydration.

Daily water intake requirements vary based on our age, gender, weight, activity level, diet, medical conditions, and climate. In adults, normal body processes such as breathing, sweating and removal of waste release an average of 9 to 13 cups of water every day (link). If we work out or simply find ourselves sweating more, our kidneys sense the loss of water through the skin and they send less water to the bladder. If the amount of water we lose through sweat threatens the delicate balance of our blood composition, the kidneys signal this to the brain and we get thirsty.

The problem with following our thirst

Point 1: Our brains let us know it is time to drink water when the body experiences water loss of 1% to 2% of body mass (link). These are the same numbers at which concentration, mood and overall performance may begin to see a decline. Less than 1% body mass loss was also found to increase pain sensitivity (link 1, link 2).

Point 2: Our thirst tends to be alleviated before our bodies reach optimal hydration levels again, especially during exercise or hot weather conditions (link). Additionally, cold or carbonated drinks can alter the perception of how much fluid we are drinking, resulting in lower amounts of fluid intake (link). Together, this evidence raises an important question — should we always rely on thirst?

What happens when the balance is tipped

Homeostasis represents the balance in our bodies. Internal and external changes constantly tip this balance which the body experiences as stress. Well-being can be measured by how quickly the body and mind can recover from stress and return to balance. Picture this: you decide to work out one morning and the room is warmer than usual. You don’t mind it and progress with your workout. Responding to your thirst, you drink 1 litre of water, but your body loses 1.5 litres of water through sweat. By the time you sit down at your desk, your body is in a state of mild dehydration. This may make you feel like you are more tired than usual, less focused and perhaps in a poorer mood. Now your body is one glass of water away from recovering its physical and mental balance.

Mild dehydration may impact physical and mental health not only because it changes the concentration of the blood flowing through all our organs and tissues, but also because these changes are registered by our brain as stress. While this stress may go unnoticed, it may, in turn, increase levels of neurotransmitters and hormones associated with stress — adrenaline (link) and cortisol (link).

Adrenaline and cortisol can tell the brain to suppress thirst and the kidneys to hold onto more water. This helped our ancestors survive dangerous situations such as temporary lack of water or having to run and hide from predators. For the healthy individual in today’s society who lets their thirst be their guide, this may lead to a vicious cycle of mild dehydration.

Why well-being includes proper hydration

Well-being practices should include hydration awareness. Drinking when thirsty can help us meet our water intake requirements at rest. However, for most of us, life includes moments of stress, working out and sweating through warmer environments such as a hot shower, sauna or just a brisk walk.

In a practical sense, we cannot avoid mild dehydration, but we can work on how quickly we recover from it. The flight-and-flight response can be induced by dehydration and blood flow is redirected away from digestive and reproductive organs and into our muscle tissues, creating tension. Being able to switch from the flight-and-flight mode and into the rest-and-digest mode promotes relaxation of our muscles and optimal blood flow throughout our body.

Optimal hydration is a journey that involves self-awareness. Tap into your mind-body connection in moments of rest and follow your thirst. With time, you will improve the communication between your body and mind and notice even the slightest sign of thirst that can help you maintain optimal hydration. Think about one situation in your daily life that you now know may cause mild dehydration — longer periods of walking or exercising. Set a reminder to drink slightly more water than usual around the time this situation will occur next. When you take a sip of water, close your eyes, take a deep breath and exhale. Trust that you will now provide your body with the water it needs and trust that your body will maintain your internal environment in optimal balance.

Points to consider:

  • 20% of our daily water intake comes from water-rich fruits and vegetables like berries, melons, cucumber, leafy greens, bell peppers and squashes (link). Feel free to adjust the amount of water you drink according to how many portions of these foods you eat.
  • If you happen to breathe through your mouth during sleep, you tend to lose more water. You may benefit from increasing your morning water intake.
  • While most suspect caffeine leads to dehydration, research observed it may act as a mild diuretic (link), but does not seem to impact average hydration levels (link).

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