Water and the Health Benefits of Proper Hydration
Water is the foundation of life and is fundamental in the quest for health and wellbeing. It allows the body to efficiently digest and absorb food nutrients and helps eliminate environmental, lifestyle, and metabolic waste. It moistens cells, promotes cell growth and repair, and helps maintain the structural integrity required for motility. Water facilitates all essential biological activities. Without a doubt, drinking water is a healthy habit to which we should exhibit fanatical devotion.
Digestion and Absorption
Water aids the digestive process by helping convert the foods we eat into the raw materials, which fuel our body and ease the transport of nutrients in and waste out of organ tissue. Breaking it down by essential digestive functions – ingestion, propulsion, digestion, absorption, elimination – will allow us to fully consider the role water plays in each step in supporting health and wellbeing.
First, water is the primary solvent in mucus, which is a major component of the saliva that helps moisten food for ingestion and initiates the breakdown of carbohydrates in the mouth. Without an adequate water component, food will be hard to swallow and might place an increasing burden on the stomach and small intestines. Once swallowed, food is then propelled through the digestive tract by involuntary muscle contractions whose function is dependent on the presence of water in and around our nerve cells. Without water, nerve function is slowed and nerve impulses have greater difficulty jumping the synapse between nerve cells. Next, the digestion of food in the stomach and small intestines is facilitated through hydrolysis reactions, which require the interaction of water and enzymes to break down large food molecules into smaller, more easily absorbed pieces. Water is also an essential component of the stomach and intestinal wall lining that protects them from the highly acidic gastric juices utilized during digestion. Also, water is integral in cell structure, affording the digestive system the ability to effortlessly allow nutrient absorption through the intestinal wall into the blood for distribution. Finally, the elimination of waste from cells and the colon is dependent upon the presence of water to move toxins out and to help keep stools soft.
The ability of the digestive system to break down food into raw nutrients is an integral component in the body’s ability to grow, adapt and thrive and is completely dependent upon water.
Waters abundance in the body is indicative of its role in healthy metabolic function. Accounting for approximately 70% of body mass, water is principle in the blood, extracellular and intracellular fluid. Blood, the river of life that surges within us, is responsible for the transport of all substances (nutrients, hormones, wastes) around and out of the body and represents 5% of body mass, approximately 50% of which is water. Extracellular fluid, which baths the exterior of our cells and contains thousands of ingredients essential to cell function, and intracellular fluid, which falls within the cell membrane and holds the vital organelles that perform cellular respiration, represent 15% and 50% of body mass, respectively, and are water based substances that provide the appropriate environment for all biological activity. As we will see below, maintaining these levels is absolutely necessary for efficient cellular function and, ultimately, sustaining life.
Cellular respiration, the series of metabolic reactions that transforms food nutrients into energy, is dependent upon water’s unique chemical attributes and molecular structure. For example, the synthesis of ATP, or “cellular fuel”, is important because the energy liberated when water is applied powers activities like protein production, nutrient transport, and the muscle contraction. If we are water deficient, energy transport via ATP is slowed and cellular function comes to a halt.
Further, the bonds that hold the hydrogen and oxygen atoms together are highly charged (polar) and cause water molecules to exhibit a bent structure that easily interacts with neighboring molecules. This versatility makes water an excellent solvent for properly distributing smaller substances like acids, bases and salts (electrolytes) to facilitate more efficient reactions. Further, this ‘universal solvency’ allows water to be a great waste transport and exchange medium.
In addition to its chemical function in the body, water aides our mechanical function and the ability to move and respond to our environment. Water is a major component of the serous fluid that lines the anterior body cavities where organs need to be able to slide across one another to prevent damage during movement and is present in the synovial fluid in our joints where bones, tendons, and ligaments meet to increase mobility. Similarly, water serves a protective function in the form of the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions the brain and protects it from physical trauma.
Also, water’s bent structure imparts behaviors that make it an efficient mechanism for regulating body temperature. Specifically, water’s high heat capacity insulates us from rapid changes in external temperature and its high heat of vaporization allows the body to quickly release heat through perspiration to help maintain equilibrium.
Waters contribution to the body is quite remarkable if we consider how often we neglect to recognize our dependence upon it in our daily lives and take for granted the fact that it is so readily available and inexpensive.
The physiological process of dehydration is pretty straightforward. When the body is deprived of hydrating liquids over a long period of time, it tries to correct the imbalance by drawing from its internal reserves. First, the body pulls water out of the blood to aide the excretory organs in the elimination of metabolic and cellular waste. This response causes a reduction in blood volume, which inhibits bloods ability to efficiently deliver nutrients to the cells and eventually signals the body to start drawing water from other sources. Upon this signal, the body taps into the extracellular fluid that bathes our cells to provide the proper environment for cell subsistence. As water is removed, the extracellular fluid thickens and becomes exceedingly concentrated, which hampers its ability to exchange substances with the blood and the cells themselves. Recognizing this, the body looks to restore the extracellular environment by drawing water from the cell body so that normal biological function can resume. However, drawing water from this foundational layer where it is most important further impairs cellular activity and can have an increasingly detrimental impact on the body. If hydrating liquids are not consumed at this point and the deficiency is left unaddressed, the body goes through a kind of recalibration and attempts to reallocate its efforts to further draw resources from all three layers proportional to their relative water abundance. This means more water comes out of the cell body to further impair their function.
Dehydration and the removal of water from our cells is extremely harmful to the body and can impair biological function by slowing enzymatic activity, poisoning the body, reducing energy production and initiating water retention and swelling.
Enzymes are responsible for initiating all biological activity in the body and their function is dependent upon the appropriate water levels in the environment in which they exist. As water is drawn from the cells and enzyme concentrations grow, our biological material crowds its environment and function is slowed. For example, a few enzymes work to lower the activation energy required to jump start chemical reaction, provide alternate pathways for reactions to occur and increase internal temperatures to speed up reactions and generate outputs faster. When these enzymes are absent or their function is stunted, the body cannot execute the various activities that keep us happy and healthy.
Dehydration also inhibits the body’s ability to remove the waste produced during cellular activity that is traditionally eliminated through perspiration, urination and defecation. As elimination is reduced, waste products build in the excretory organs and are deposited in vital tissue (joints, kidneys, liver, brain, skin), which can poison the body (autointoxication) and contribute to the risk of developing migraines, fibromyalgia and cancer.
Further, dehydration impairs the production of the body’s cellular fuel, ATP. ATP transports chemical energy within the cells to spark metabolic function and is vital to the motility and cell division that help sustain life. Without ATP, molecules cannot be made or broken down, cells cannot maintain their boundaries, and all life processes grind to a halt.
Finally, edema can result from an extended period of water deprivation and the body may be triggered to retain water in extracellular fluid, which may cause swelling in the extremities. This survival mechanism also has the unintended consequence of increasing blood pressure, which can have a wide variety of adverse effects on cardiovascular health.
Staying inadequately hydrated has a diverse collection of consequences and we need to remain mindful of the things we do avoid or reduce dehydration.
While there is a wealth of information out there that prescribes a specific amount of water each day, the easiest thing may be to simply listen to the body’s signals and drink when we are told that the body is thirsty. This is not always easy and definitely requires some practice, but the skill required to accurately determine thirst will develop with practice. I believe that the body is intelligent beyond our comprehension and developing the capacity to recognize its signals is fundamental to establishing any healthy lifestyle habit.
For those of us who prefer to accommodate scientific inquiry or generally accepted recommendations on intake, research suggests that the average person should consume upwards of 2 liters each day, adjusting this number up if they routinely participate in intense physical activity, carry a little more weight, live in warmer climates or eat foods that are typically harder to digest (fried or spicy foods, beans, red meat, ice cream, broccoli and onions). It is not unheard of for endurance athletes to consume 3 to 3.5 liters of water each day.
Naturally, beverages like fruit and vegetable juices, tea and electrolyte drinks contribute to hydration and should be taken into consideration when developing a hydration strategy, but I would recommend making water our beverage of choice, as it does not contain any substances (sugar, caffeine, etc.) that may impact our health. Further, a diet that emphasizes water-rich fruits and vegetables will reduce our recommended intake and help us avoid the hazards of dehydration. Finally, eliminating beverages that are mildly diuretic (coffee, soda) will allow us that much more wiggle room in recommended intake and will only improve our chances of staying well hydrated and healthy.
I have found it beneficial to always be prepared for instances where water is not readily available by carrying a large, non-disposable water bottle. A large container of water will typically last me a couple hours away from the house or desk and is a sufficient amount to replenish my body after an intense workout. Also, a favorite habit of mine is making one of my primary meals a large, raw salad. Fresh, uncooked vegetables are a hidden source of water and can be a valuable addition to any health oreinted routine. Finally, it is often said that we should completely eliminate caffeinated beverages like coffee to prevent dehydration, but I don’t think this is totally necessary if we simply reduce our consumption or be sure to compensate for its supposed diuretic effect by throwing a few extra glasses of water into our daily routine. Replace the nth cup of coffee with tea this afternoon and drink an extra 8 oz. of water afterwards.
There is no questioning waters importance in health and wellness. It is essential in maintaining a healthy digestive system; utilizing the nutrients we receive through food, and providing our body the ideal environment for metabolic function. By remaining mindful of our individual needs and developing healthy water habits we will be able to accomplish the wellness goals we establish for ourselves and experience the full benefit of a healthy mind and body.