Water is life; it is a part of numerous critical biochemical processes in the body. Water carries regenerative nutrients – such as vitamins and minerals – to every cell in our body. It makes chemical and metabolic reactions happen, is integral in regulating our body temperature, and it keeps our bodies healthy by facilitating detoxification and eliminating waste products.
We lose water from our bodies through sweating, breathing, and elimination – so we need to replenish constantly. Adults want to aim for about 8 cups (2 liters) a day, and a few cups more may be required for those who are exercising frequently (before, during, and after physical activity is best). Here are some strategies to keep your body thriving when it comes to maintaining healthy fluid balance and replenishment.
Stay accountable & track it!
Whether you keep a tally on a sticky note at your work desk, you make dash marks on the calendar, or you are using a water tracker app on your smart phone, tracking your water intake is a great idea. You will be more successful in the long run if you can watch your progress and figure out if your lower-water days are related to anything in particular. Many of my patients note that they drink much less water on the weekends for instance – when they are out of their Monday-to-Friday routine. If you notice trends like this when you start tracking your consumption, you will know when and where you need to step up your effort. There are also a number of “water notification” apps (just type “water reminder” into your phone’s app store) that can be useful for reminding you to sip throughout the day, everyday.
Don’t forget about the ‘lytes
Of course we want to replace the water we lose throughout the day, but we not only lose H2O during our physiological processes – we also lose important electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. If you eat a well-rounded diet of whole foods including lots of vegetables and fruit, you should be getting enough electrolytes to replenish your daily losses. But if you happen to be someone with slightly higher electrolyte needs – such as those exercising or sweating more than average – you might need to kick it up a notch with extra electrolyte sources.
Optimize yourself with hydration products
There are a number of electrolyte powders and pre-prepared beverages on the market - often marketed as sports drinks – that aim to rehydrate with a combination of fluid, electrolytes, and sometimes carbohydrates. Quality is something to consider when choosing a rehydrating drink, and while many products do contain an ample amount of electrolytes, they can also be laden with added sugar, artificial colours, preservatives, and flavor enhancers. Read labels, and as a general rule I recommend to opt for the product with the least amount of artificial ingredients. Coconut water is my all-time favourite natural food source for replenishing electrolytes. In addition to containing essential electrolytes and fluid, it also contains carbohydrates, making it an ideal drink for athletes before, during, and after exercise.
Electrolytes drinks for the diet-conscious
There are also a number of calorie-free sports drink mixes for those who need the electrolyte boost but not necessarily the carbohydrates. My favourite natural powders for both everyday hydration and boosting athletic performance include Vega Hydrator and Ultima Replenisher. Nuun is a great brand of natural electrolyte tablets (in calorie-free and very low calorie varieties) that come in a very convenient, on-the-go tube that you can easily drop into a glass or water bottle on the go. Your local health food or specialty sports store should carry these in a variety of flavours.
All fluids are not created equal
What about drinks like soda and coffee when it comes to rehydration? They do contain fluid in the form of water, right? This is a bit complicated, because while they do obviously contain water, they may also contain other ingredients like caffeine, added sugar, and other ingredients that can take extra work for the body to metabolize (processes that use up water in the first place). In addition, caffeine in high amounts can be a diuretic and hence dehydrating to the body (this is why you might find yourself rushing to the washroom soon after your morning java). As a general rule, I recommend that patients do not include drinks like coffee and soda as part of their water consumption count for the day. In contrast, I would count beverages with low caffeine content and naturally-occurring sugars, such as fruit and vegetable juices, and herbal teas.
Take note of dehydration signs
If you know you might not be nearing your minimum daily water consumption, consider whether you are experiencing any signs or symptoms. In the short term, in addition to uncomfortable thirst, dehydration can lead to dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness, and decreased athletic performance. In the long term, dehydration can also contribute to constipation, low blood pressure, nausea, and skin issues. Also remember that when putting yourself in situations requiring more hydration and temperature regulation (say, playing sports on a hot summer’s day) you will be more susceptible to developing dehydration symptoms sooner.
Headaches are a very common symptom that patients come into my office complaining of, that can more than often be linked back to dehydration. Unless I suspect something more serious is going on, my very first prescription for what sounds like it could be dehydration headaches is simply to amp up the H2O, before I would consider prescribing fancy treatments or pain medicine.
Do I need hydration help?
For most of us, we can tell when we haven’t been having enough water when the aforementioned dehydration signs and symptoms start to creep up. But if symptoms seem more complicated – such as excessive thirst despite ample fluid consumption, excessive or decreased urination, or dehydration symptoms that are not resolving with regular fluid and electrolyte replacement, consider making an appointment with your health care provider to get to the bottom of it. Through physical exam and laboratory testing, your physician or other health care provider can work to rule out more complicated conditions related to dehydration, and then help you work with dietary and lifestyle measures to keep your body hydrated (and happy).
Dr. Courtney Campbell is a Naturopathic Physician and co-founder of Aurora Integrative Medical in Vancouver, Canada. Her professional passions including working with patients on their journeys towards weight loss, hormonal balance, digestive health, and improved stress and anxiety.