Most people worry about drinking enough water these days and getting in their “8 glasses a day”. There are even water bottles with markers on showing how much water you should have drank by this time of the day. This really freaks me out! Are we really so detached from our bodies that we need to rely on a plastic bottle to tell us when to drink water?! In this post I want to talk about problems you might encounter with drinking too much water and how much water you should drink to stay healthy. If you are reading this thinking you hardly drink any water and don’t have any issues then maybe click away but I’m talking to the health and fitness enthusiasts here who can’t leave the house without their trusty water bottle by their side (and this used to be me!).
Of course we need to drink water to stay alive. Dehydration can cause all sorts of issues from headaches and poor concentration to dry and dull skin. But do we really need to be chugging water non-stop all day to avoid dehydration? The thing that many people don’t realise is that we also take in water from the food that we eat, especially water rich fruits and veggies. The recommended 2L of water a day also includes this water, not just the water that we drink. It also includes the water in other liquids such as juice, tea and coffee. If you are already following a healthy diet with plenty of fresh food, you might already be taking in all of the water you need without drinking any water at all.
What are the downsides of drinking too much water?
You might think that water is pretty harmless and it’s not possible to drink too much but it is actually possible to run into health issues from drinking too much water. The problem is that water, especially tap or filtered water, doesn’t include the same amount of electrolyte salts as the water in your body. Over-hydration can dilute the levels of salts such as sodium, calcium and potassium levels in your body causing all sorts of problems. On the extreme end there is water intoxication where someone who drinks too much water too fast can cause damage to their brain and even death. But this is extremely rare and not something you could do by accidently drinking too much water during the day. More likely is a chronic, low level dilution of the electrolytes in your extra-cellular fluid which can cause:
- Low core temperature and cold hands and feet
- Muscle weakness and cramps
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Constipation and digestive issues
- Dry skin and lips (this can be because you’re not truly hydrated, more on this in a moment)
If you read yesterday’s post on the signs of a low metabolism, you’ll recognise some of these symptoms. Drinking too much water can affect the metabolic rate as you are effectively throwing water on your metabolic fire. That’s not to say you should stop drinking water to speed up your metabolism but it is about finding a good balance.
How to know if you’re drinking too much water?
- You drink excessively including when you’re not thirsty
- Your pee is completely clear
- You are peeing frequently (e.g. every 1-2 hours and once or more during the night)
- You have a sudden urge to urinate
- You feel cold all of the time, especially in your hands and feet
- Your basal body temperature is below 36.5 degrees C
How much water should you drink to stay healthy?
Really that isn’t a question I can answer because how much water you need depends on your body, your diet and your activity level. But if you are drinking a litre of water when you wake up, walking around all day with a water bottle and refilling it several times throughout the day then there’s a chance you are overdoing it. Unless you live in a desert or do crazy amounts of exercise you probably don’t need that much water. There is a myth that once you’re thirsty you are already dehydrated so you should avoid being thirsty at all costs. But our body has a thirst mechanism for a reason, to tell us when it needs water! So put simply, only drink water when you’re thirsty.
The other problem is that plain water is not really hydrating for the body. As I said earlier it contains minimal electrolytes which means it isn’t easily absorbed and utilised by your body. Inside the water can go “straight through you” putting pressure on your kidneys because they have to work even harder to maintain balance. One thing you can also try is drinking mineral water, coconut water or adding electrolytes to tap water to make it more hydrating for your body. You want to have a good balance between the glucose (sugar) and salts (sodium and potassium) that you are taking in through your diet and the amount of water that you drink. Think about when someone is in hospital and they are put on a drip. This fluid is the perfect ratio of fluid to salts and glucose to be absorbed by the body.
Warming foods and cooling foods
To understand this food/water connection further, we can think about foods as cooling or warming for the body. By this I don’t mean cold or hot foods but rather the effect that different foods have on your core body temperature. Herbal tea is a cooling food and ice cream is a warming food – confused? Try drinking a pint of plain tea and eating a pint of ice cream and notice how you feel an hour later once the initial effect of the food temperature has worn off. Generally speaking, cooling foods are high in water and low in calories and salt e.g. fruits, vegetables and low calorie liquids. Warming foods have a lower water content and are more energy dense and salty e.g. crackers, bread, cheese, chocolate. The more cooling foods in your diet, the less water you need to drink. If you eat a more warming diet, then you’ll want to drink more water to balance it out. Simple!
Cooling foods (L) vs. warming foods (C, R)
For example, if you eat a heavy takeaway meal or a bag of salty crisps, your body is going to send you signals to drink more water. In this case the water helps to dilute the salts you have take in. But if you eat a big fruit salad followed by a glass of water, you will probably be running to the bathroom to pee afterwards and might start to feel cold. Make sense? This is a problem with a lot of “healthy” diets which encourage restricting salt and sugar and focusing on cooling foods (ahem raw vegans…). If you are following this kind of diet and have signs of over-hydration above, add some salt to your diet, reduce your water intake and focus on more warming foods for a while until you feel more balanced. And if you are a healthy person aim for a balance of the two and drink whenever you are thirsty.
If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend the book Eat for Heat by Matt Stone. His writing style might put some people off but what he has to say is very interesting and following his protocols helped to get me out of a metabolic slump and recover the symptoms described above. Remember, my point with these posts is to make you question some of the common health myths out there and not to tell you what to do. There’s no need to throw your water bottle away and eat loads of salty foods without drinking any liquids. No extremes here, there is such a thing as too little water! Listen to your body and you will find your balance.
Your challenge for today and the week ahead is to start to pay attention to how you feel after taking in different foods and liquids. Maybe play around with the amount of water you are drinking and your balance of warming and cooling foods and see how you feel.
Over to you…
I hope this article got you thinking about water and whether you are drinking too much. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
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