Try life-enhancing water – not drinking enough can mean a life only half lived.
Experts agree most of us walk around in a state of semi-dehydration without even realising the effects it’s having on our bodies and our mood.
According to Dr Jhothi Thalluri, Senior Lecturer at the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences at the University of South Australia, “Recent studies have shown a very high percentage of the general population is partly dehydrated every day.”
So, how do your daily drinking habits stack up – and what effects does not drinking enough water have on your body?
The juice of life
We are remarkably sanguine about staying adequately hydrated, even though drinking water is one of the main things our body needs to function properly – and of course, to survive!
The eight glasses of water a day prescription has been all but poured down our throats for so long, yet we still seem to preoccupy ourselves with side issues of water quality (see What’s the best way to drink water, below), asking whether a cup of tea counts, or carrying around grubby bottles refilled with lukewarm stuff which we’re, not surprisingly, none too keen to drink.
But consider this from Pennie Taylor, Senior Research Dietitian at the CSIRO department of Animal, Food and Health Sciences: “Often the symptoms of mild dehydration, such as fatigue and irritability occur with a one to two per cent loss of one’s normal fluid volume. These symptoms can often be overlooked and put down to stress, working too hard, or just a ‘bad day’.”
We constantly lose water through urinating, defecating, breathing and perspiring. If the weather is hot, if we’re exercising a lot, or if we suffer diarrhoea we lose more than usual. It’s when we don’t take in enough to replace what we’ve lost that we become dehydrated.
It’s recommended women need to drink on average around eight glasses of water a day (2 litres) and men need around 10 glasses (2.5 litres).
Your body loves water
Is it true that once you’re thirsty, you’re probably already dehydrated? Yes, but don’t panic (or carry water wherever you go!), says Professor Matti Lang, an expert in toxicology at the University of Queensland.
Thirst is a sign you should drink water, and you can replenish yourself quickly and easily. It’s only when we ignore this thirst and consistently fail to replenish the water we lose every day that our bodies function at a less than optimal level.
“Slight dehydration over time has a significant impact on our daily lives, often leaving people feeling as though they’re not working at a hundred per cent,” says Taylor. Symptoms may escalate to lethargy, headaches, lack of concentration, weakness and poor sleep.
If you’re feeling a bit floppy just thinking about it, take note: A study of 447 students sitting for exams in the UK found those who drank water during the exam improved their grades by up to 10 per cent. The researchers believe drinking water improved the students’ concentration. It is thought the pathways between brain cells are ‘lubricated’ when you’re more hydrated, while thirst contributes to distraction.
As your blood is 90 per cent water, your circulatory system is one of the most affected by water consumption. It is responsible for the delivery of nutrients and oxygen, and for waste removal. Thalluri describes the flow-on effect of being even semi-dehydrated: “It can lead to a lower blood volume. This will lead to our vital organs not receiving adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrients to be able to function properly.
“The kidneys are one of our very important organs. They filter blood and produce approximately 1.5 litres of urine each day. If dehydrated, the kidneys will try to help raise our blood volume by conserving water, producing less than normal amounts of urine.”
One sign of this is that our urine tends to become a concentrated dark yellow colour. Dehydration also results in urine staying longer in the kidneys which can lead to urinary tract infections and the formation of kidney stones — which are not only painful but can also be potentially dangerous.
You’ll feel better if you’re well-watered
A sluggish, dehydrated circulatory system affects all the cells that make up your body and means they won’t function quite as well as they could. This includes the cells in your muscles, brain and skin.
On the upside, all you need to do is drink enough to replenish your body’s stores to receive endless benefits. Taylor names, “maintenance of muscle tone, lubrication and cushioning of joints, prevention of constipation, reduction of fatigue…” as a just a few benefits.
That means if you get your daily water requirement you’ll feel stronger, move more easily and have more energy!
Keeping your body properly watered also supports your immune system — meaning you’ll get sick less often. Just as poor blood flow restricts distribution of goodies to the cells, it also hampers the removal of waste products from the body. As a result, Thalluri says, “Often chronically dehydrated people find that they get sick more frequently and remain sick for longer. Hydration is vital to assist in the elimination of toxins and other by-products of any illness. [When you’re dehydrated] it’s more difficult for the immune system to overcome an illness, resulting in decreased immunity.” This is why the doctor’s advice when you’re sick so often includes, ‘drink plenty of fluids’.
Have a cuppa!
So, can you drink anything other than water to count as ‘fluids’? You can count coffee, tea, milk, broth, miso soup, juice and more in your water tally.
However, we all know almost everything other than water also comes with kilojoules (or caffeine or salt). It’s also true that we get some water from fruit and vegetables, but that intake is much harder to calculate each day — so consider it a bonus!
Water, and in the vast majority of cases, plain tap water, is your best source of hydration. If you have trouble remembering to drink, try tying your daily drinking to some other activity.
For example, make it part of your routine to drink a glass of water when you wake up, and before each meal (this has the added benefit of dampening hunger); have a cup of tea in the afternoon, or drink a glass of water every time you leave the bathroom — it’ll soon become like washing your hands!
Now you’re looking good!
Have you’ve ever wondered what a beautician or beauty counter salesperson means when they say, ‘Oh, your skin is so dehydrated’? Usually, what he or she means is they’d like you to buy some moisturiser.
But it’s also true that being well-hydrated will assist you in maintaining youthful skin, at next to no cost.
“Prolonged dehydration can lead to wrinkling and drying of the skin. [Because it also] leads to immune cell dysfunction, you’ll have more infections generally, and also in the skin,” explains Thalluri.
“But hydrated skin is healthier skin, with fewer infections, and less flaking and cracking. With better blood supply, skin glows.” And we like the feeling and the look of that.
What’s the best way to drink water?
Glass is your best choice when you don’t need a mobile water supply says Professor Lang. This is because glass is non-reactive — it releases nothing of itself into the liquid it contains.
For travelling, he then rates stainless steel as a better choice than aluminium, but both are often diluted with cheaper metals and telling them apart is almost impossible when you buy.
However, you don’t need to sweat over alarmist stories about plastic and metal drink bottles leaching toxic chemicals into water. Professor Lang adds the health risk from any of the frequently-used bottling materials is minimal.
“Our bodies don’t work like that,” he says, pointing out that our system is designed to eliminate toxins — a process helped by being properly hydrated. If you’re really concerned, the best plastic bottles to use are polyethylene or polypropylene (these have the recycling codes 2, 4 or 5 in the triangle on the bottom of the bottle.) The most important thing about any bottle? Keep it clean so it’s not a frog pond of bacteria.
What’s really in your water?
Where your water comes from, how far it has to travel to get to you and the state of the pipes it’s travelled through all contribute to the quality of the water that you’re drinking.
Australians supplied with ‘town’ water, can generally be confident that their water is safe to drink. Water suppliers use certain processes and filtration systems, and treat the water with disinfecting chemicals (usually chlorine). This is to kill dangerous bacteria (such as E. coli) both at the water treatment plant and on the way to your house. You may find the lingering taste or smell of chlorine in your water unpleasant enough to install a filter on your kitchen tap (but, healthwise, it’s not necessary).
Fluoride has also been added to Australian water since the 1960s and 70s, to reduce tooth decay in the population — and it’s been amazingly effective. The only doubt is we don’t know what long-term side-effects may emerge as a result of supplementing our water with fluoride, but evidence so far says that the benefits outweigh any potential risks.
The levels of trace elements, such as copper and iron, in your tap water can vary according to the age of your pipes (new pipes release more copper until a protective surface forms on the inside of the pipes over time), the sediment raised with surges in water pressure, and cracks in the piping. If you have concerns about your water, contact your local supplier. The websites of major suppliers around the country are a good source of information. For example, sydneywater.com.au offers daily water quality results; and watercorporation.com.au, which administers much of the water supply to Western Australian homes and businesses, provides information on what causes changes in the water supply, water sources and results of water-quality testing throughout the region.