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Water: The Underestimated, Overlooked Essential Nutrient

World Health Day is in April and we want to nourish our bodies, just like we want to care for our planet and environment. You may think H20 is blah, boring and plain. Water gets little credit, but the power of this vital nutrient is truly magnificent; it’s time to give it the love and attention it deserves.

Water: a crucial nutrient
A nutrient is defined as a substance that provides nourishment for growth or metabolism. Without water, neither of those functions are able to happen. We may not think of water as a specific nutrient, but its role in our metabolism, cellular functions, mood, cognitive health, and physical performance is involved in every aspect. If we are not appropriately hydrated by giving our body the quality water it needs, you can imagine how those processes begin to slow.

Think about it like this: you’re trying to take a shower but you only have a single stream of water drizzling out of the tap to rinse off your head which is full of sudsy shampoo. It’s not going to work very effectively and will take a long time to get rinsed off. Now, if you had a showerhead with several streams of cascading water, you could get rinsed off more quickly and efficiently. In a very simplistic way, your body needs many different streams of water to carry out several different functions—all at the same time throughout your body, from breathing to stabilizing blood pressure to breaking down your breakfast.

Humans are made up of approximately 60-75% water. In every part of our body, where cellular reactions are happening, water is being consumed, transferred, expelled, and produced every moment. Don’t forget about all those processes of water excretion in urine, sweat, tears, and other natural body fluid loss as well. Every system in our body relies on water. It is extremely important to replenish water loss and keep the fine machinery of our body running smoothly with adequate water levels daily. Simply put, that is why humans are able to go weeks without food, but can only survive mere days without water. We can’t live without it.

As a general rule of thumb, you should try to drink 8-10 cups (64-80 ounces) of water a day. Waiting for thirst to kick in is not always the best indicator either. Thirst signals are the beginning signs of dehydration, especially for younger and older individuals who may not recognize this cue as readily. Other signs and symptoms of severe dehydration include headache, dizziness, forgetfulness, sleepiness, confusion, and delirium.

Coffee, tea, juice, broth, and other liquids can count toward your fluid consumption, or water recommendation, but keep in mind the amount of sugar, salt, and other additives in these drinks can take away of the immediate usability, but water is certainly extracted and immediately put to work. Although caffeine and soda can be diuretics (causing you to produce more urine), to say they are dehydrating may not actually be factual, since they are made with water. Unless they are consumed in large amounts (500mg caffeine a day) or several sodas/juices, it is counted toward your total fluid need. Alcohol can be especially dehydrating since your body has to detoxify it, and water inbetween drinks is a good idea.

Just like food, the more pure and less processed—added sugar, artificial sweetener and other additives—the more beneficial it will be for
your body.

In the United States, we are very fortunate to have clean water straight out of the tap in most places across the nation with few exceptions. Many populations have to walk for miles to get to a water well. If you’re feeling inspired by World Health Day, check out how you can help someone else get clean water through Unicef, thewaterproject.org or charitywater.org.

Fill up your re-usable water bottle, save money, and spare the planet from drowning in the plastic bottles and fancy flavored water containers. Purchasing a filter or water-bottle filter are good ideas to increase the quality of the water and are inexpensive investments toward optimal health.

Other factors affecting hydration
Age: As we get older, our thirst receptors don’t work as well and our cells are slower to turnover, as most mechanisms in the human body. Water and staying hydrated are more important than ever.

Weight: The more you weigh, the more water you will need. Some literature suggests 0.5 ounce for every pound of body weight. Meet with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RND) in order to find the exact amount your
body needs.

Temperature: When the temperature rises, we excrete more water, and, therefore, need more water.  A no-brainer, right?  But definitely something to always think about, especially in the southern summertime heat. Be careful with sports drinks, sugary Kool-aid, teas and juices; the sugar will not be helpful for your hydration status and waistline.

Activity: Mostly associated with marathon runners and endurance athletes, increased water intake also needs to be adequate for anyone participating in rigorous events for an hour or more. Adequate water intake, before, during, and after the activity is essential. You do need electrolyte replenishment after more than an hour workout but again work with an RDN to understand your needs for your specific activity level. Sports drinks are not a must-have just because it is hot outside and you’re moving around for a few minutes.

Beware, you can consume too much
Also called water intoxication, hyperhydration, or hyponatremia (meaning low presence of sodium in blood, which is essential for heart, organ, and muscle function), overdosing on water can be a rare but real threat. In 2007, there was a case where a young woman died in a water drinking contest to win a Wii system. Marathon runners as well as military recruits have also lost their lives related to exercise associated hyponatremic encephalopathy. Understanding the balance of electrolytes needed after an intense workout and your input and output of water will prepare you to understand your hydration needs, avoiding this risk.

Don’t like the taste of water?
I’ve heard it a thousand times:  “But, I don’t like drinking plain water, it’s so boring” (in kind of a whiny and pitiful voice no less). So change it up! Add lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit slices for added vitamin C, pizazz, and citrusy punch. Cucumber, watermelon, ginger, and mint are fabulous cold weather blues chasers or summer flavor enhancers. Or, mix eight ounces water with some cranberry, grape, or pomegranate juice, add a touch of seltzer water, and turn your regular water into an enjoyable alcohol free cocktail. The possibilities really are endless, but just like exercise, find a way that works for you and make it a habit. Your body is counting on it.


How Much Water Should You Drink A Day?

Wickam, M. Water presentation. Middle Tennessee State University. April 19, 2009.

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