Julie Wilkins explains how staying hydrated can greatly improve your life…
Alongside the environmental and ethical advantages, a boost to your health and wellbeing is also at the top of the list of benefits to following a vegan lifestyle. A diet rich in whole, fresh, seasonal foods delivers a range of nutrients that make us feel and look great. However, it’s very easy to overlook one of the most obvious sources of physical and mental health and wellbeing – staying well hydrated.
Water is referred to as the elixir of life for good reason. All life evolved from water, and we spend the first 9 months of our lives floating in it! Thankfully most of us have access to drinking water so we don’t need to fear the consequences of not drinking enough. Or do we?
Did you know that your body loses as much as 2-3 pints of water a day just breathing, urinating and perspiring? That’s before you start exercising. Our bodies are made up of 65% water, with our brains being 80% water and our lungs 90% water. It’s essential for blood to flow around our bodies, for digestion to take place properly, and for nutrients to get to and from the cells in our bodies, and then out again as waste products. And while we can survive in a state of mild-to-moderate dehydration for a long time, it does take its toll and the effects will set in when we are 1-2% dehydrated.
Every cell in your body (all 50-70 trillion of them) relies on being well hydrated to perform their daily tasks including generating energy, healing and repairing the body, growing and dividing to make new cells. At the first sign of dehydration the body will switch on a stress-response mode, beginning to close the cell by coating the outside in cholesterol to trap the water inside. However, this also traps waste products and toxins that need to leave the cell, and restricts fresh nutrients from entering. Slowly your cells begin to work less effectively. It’s a little like how you would feel if you didn’t have enough air to breath, and were kept isolated in a dark, cold room. Ever wake up tired? Have an energy slump mid-afternoon? Struggle to focus or concentrate for long periods? Crave sweet or caffeine-based pick-me-ups? These are signs of dehydration.
High and dry
The body also begins to ration water, prioritising the most important bodily functions to keep you alive. Chronic dehydration over many years has been linked to fatigue, constipation, digestive disorders, weight gain, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, liver and kidney damage, muscle damage and other more serious illnesses.
So, how much should you be drinking to stay well hydrated, and how do you know you are having enough?
Often when I ask clients how much water they are drinking they say ‘enough’ or ‘I’m not a thirsty person’. We trust we will feel thirsty when we need water, but that’s not always the case. Many of us have learned to ignore our bodies’ calls for water and instead mistake them for hunger signals. Or we ignore them long enough that they stop coming all together. Your body doesn’t know that there is water all around, or it assumes you would be drinking it. It’s still stuck in the days of our caveman ancestors, when there were no other drinks than water and your priority would have been fresh drinking water. So rather than torture you with feelings of thirst, it will stop sending that message until such a time as it knows water is available again. To test this for yourself, start drinking regular glass of water throughout the day, every day, for a few days and see how your natural thirst kicks in once your inner caveman knows that it is available.
Hydration is essential for energy production in our cells. If you have energy slumps, wake up tired and unrefreshed, or struggle to focus on that post-lunch meeting, then it’s likely you are dehydrated. Reach for a large glass of water and see how you feel. Likewise, all those other fluids you consume – tea, coffee, soda, juice – aren’t a great source of hydration for your body either as they all contain other ingredients that the body has to filter, almost like a food. So, unless it’s just good, clean H2O you won’t be getting as much benefit.
Everyone is different, but start by aiming for 6-8 large glasses a day. Build up slowly – your body will want to adjust gently, so don’t rush. Think of your body like a dried-out hanging basket – if you pour water onto dry soil it just runs off the sides. You need to allow a little water to soak into the soil, and then you can add more for absorption. Have a glass upon waking; another 30 mins before each meal; another 60 mins after each meal; and one before bed. Try to avoid drinking with a meal as you risk diluting stomach acid and reducing absorption of the wonderful nutrients in your meal. Drinking 30 mins before – up to a pint – gives your stomach the water it needs for digestion.
In terms of water quality, the cleaner the better so if you have access to filtered water then that’s great. However, any water is better than none, so grab a glass of tap water if that’s all you can get. You can always fill a jug and let it sit in the room for a while, to let some of the chemicals added to clean tap water evaporate. Or boil the kettle and allow the water to cool (or drink it warm).
You can also improve the message of hydration to your body – and help to switch off the dehydration alert – by eating swollen foods and avoiding dehydrating foods. Swollen foods are filled with water, such as cooked brown rice, steamed vegetables, fresh fruit, soups and soaked nuts. In addition to bringing a message of hydration to the body, many foods yield more nutrients when we soak them before eating, such as nuts and seeds. Dry foods such as bread, crisps, crackers require water to digest them and so use up more of the body’s limited resources. Sugar and alcohol add to dehydration, requiring water to replace the levels depleted.
The good news is once you’re getting a regular supply of water, your body will quickly switch off the dehydration alert. This will enable the cells to function more effectively, and for your body to switch from being in a state of ‘fight or flight’ to a phase of healing, growth and repair. You can benefit from better sleep, waking up feeling refreshed, having more energy and focus throughout the day, and having better general health. In a world where we live with stress, this is one thing you can control and which can enable your body to work more effectively for you. So go and grab a glass and get started now. Cheers!
About the author
Julie Wilkins is a Nutritional Therapist. A graduate of the Nutritional Healing Foundation, a member of the Federation of Holistic Therapist and the Federation of Nutritional Therapy Practitioners, Julie works with individual clients, as well as running workshops for companies and groups. She lives and works in Bristol.