How do I know if I’m drinking enough water? From time to time media reports feature “experts” asserting that we need to drink only when we’re thirsty, and also, not to worry, we get plenty of water from the foods we eat. A similar view seemed to be the point of a couple of New York Times articles in the summer of 2015. In the first the Times pushed back against the familiar 8 glasses of water a day prescription. (“No, You should not have to drink 8 glasses of water a day,” 8.24.15) In the second the Times went so far as to dig out reports of two college football players who died after drinking 4 GALLONS of water, presumably in the course of a practice session. (“For Athletes, the risk of too much water,” 8.26.15)
In my experience I’ve found that the counsel to “drink when you’re thirsty” is far from satisfactory. Eventually I came to the conclusion that much of the time I was probably walking around inadequately hydrated. I’ve learned that drinking enough water takes focus and continual diligence.
Nature makes a compromise
It seems reasonable to reflect that humans have evolved, along with other mammals, so as to be able to survive for long periods while moderately (or even mostly) dehydrated. I suspect that the compromise that nature makes with survival lands us with a thirst function that is not optimal for modern life. If this is true, then even though we can operate “normally,” without sufficient water for long periods, the resulting lack of sufficient hydration can have cumulative ill effects
In my case, I suspect, insufficient water intake has, from time to time, lowered my resistance and helped bring on colds or even the flu when illness might have been prevented by timely water intake. I also suspect that for some people, lack of adequate hydration could result in even more severe symptoms like gout or kidney stones and who knows what else. A recent NYT article (“For Older Adults, Questioning a Diagnosis of Chronic Kidney Disease, 9.15.15)
reported research findings that half the population over 70 may suffer from chronic kidney disease. I wondered if persistent under-hydration could be a factor. (Later I found in a NYT article from 2011 that supported this guess. See below.)
The good news?
Fortunately, over the years, I’ve discovered some tips which help indicate when I need to drink more. The first, the cue the body receives from sneezing, seems the least well known. I once took the opportunity to mention my theory to a doctor, an experienced internist. He said he had never heard of it, but he seemed interested and he didn’t immediately reject it.
Drinking Water prevents sneezing!?
I’ve found that sneezing is an indicator that I need to drink water. Trying to reconstruct how I figured this out, I suppose that by trial and error I found that when I felt a sneeze coming on, I could prevent it by a timely drink of water. Perhaps what prompted these initial trials, was that after a sneeze, when I drank some water I felt a sense of relief which suggested there might be a connection.
My working theory is that when sensors in the body’s nasal and sinus passages detect inadequate hydration, a sneeze is provoked. In my case, I’ve found even subtle changes of temperature, like moving from one room to another where the temperature might be lower or higher, are sometimes enough to stimulate these sensors. Unsurprisingly my sneeze sensors are more dramatically stimulated by the changes of temperature and humidity when I enter a steam room or sauna.
Sensors may provide limited warning
Nor is keeping up with my body’s water requirement always a routine matter. All too often I’ll be caught up in whatever I happen to be doing, and the sneeze will catch me before I can get to water. After a sneeze I try to make a point of drinking water. I’ve found that the sneeze – sensor function does not continue indefinitely. If I don’t promptly rehydrate, typically I won’t be warned in the same way again. I suppose we’ve all noticed instances where someone sneezes half a dozen times or more in a row. Multiple sneeze episodes may very well be the body’s last dramatic notice that water is required. Afterwards, without prompt re-hydration, the body presumably retreats into water deficit mode. Long periods in this mode may lead to both short and long term health consequences.
As for the 8 glasses of water a day rule, I’ve never found it useful. I don’t count the number of glasses I drink. What I try to do is pay more attention to my body’s hydrological needs. It’s not so easy, but I’ve got my sneeze function and two other tips (see below) to help me out.
I usually make use of a handkerchief or two when I go abroad in cold weather. I finally figured out that I wouldn’t need to clear my nose so often – or at all – if I were adequately hydrated. Not so easy to do in cold weather as in warm. Thinking along these lines also made me wonder about what happens when we’re sick in bed with a cold. To what should we put down our sneezes in these circumstances? By this time readers can imagine my conclusions.
Drinking water with Meals
Years ago I happened to read that WWII concentration camp inmates learned from experience that digestion was facilitated by drinking water before eating. This prescription has worked very well for me whenever I can so remind myself. I’ve also learned to drink water during and after eating as well.
I’ve also found that after overeating, the best medicine is water. A sign that I’ve overindulged is the discomfort I feel when I try drinking water after a bout of gluttony. I soon find that it actually gets too uncomfortable to drink more than a relatively small amount. Then I need to wait awhile before I drink more to allow my system to go through its processes. Such thoughts reminded me of those football players forcing down gallon after gallon until they dropped. They might have been taught that they merely had to wait till the discomfort passed before continuing their water intake. Perhaps it was their sports mindset that encouraged them to persevere despite their pain. It would seem a good idea, with drinking water, as with all things, to keep in mind the golden rule of moderation.
And what about the New York Times? Does the Times contradict itself? An internet search yielded a NYT article from 2011 that seems to support my experience (“Really? The Claim: Drink Eight Glasses of Water a Day to Protect the Kidneys,” 11.7.2011). Researchers found that a moderate intake of extra water, above two liters a day, helps the kidneys clear the body of toxins and reduces long term kidney problems. The brief article concludes: “A moderately increased intake of fluids may protect the kidneys.”
Two more tips
More people seem to know about the next two tips, about which I have little to say other than they’ve been useful.
The color of urine
Over time I came to realize that if I were adequately hydrated the color of my urine would NOT be yellow. If I’m drinking enough water my urine will be clear.
I’ve found that chapped lips are one of the body’s indicators of dehydration. It took me years to make this connection which became obvious once I recognized it. I can’t recall the last time I used lip balm.