We have been told that we are mostly made up of water and that we should drink a minimum of 64 ounces a day to maintain hydration; perhaps more if we are active and sweat a lot. Being a skeptic of standardized recommendations that negate our body’s wisdom and its numerous means to communicate to us, it’s worth questioning the widespread endorsement of chugging large amounts of water.
To clarify, we are indeed mostly made up of water but that water is closer to seawater or glacial runoff than bottled water. And forget distilled water; there is no fluid in our body as empty as distilled water. What observing nature can teach us is that our internal milieu is a liquid matrix of water and minerals and thus to be hydrated we need to have ample amounts of both. In the absence of minerals, which draw and hold water into our bodies, drinking all the water in the world will not satisfy or hydrate us. For this reason, I have always considered drinking plain water to be a lost opportunity.
Traditional cultures were instinctively mindful of maximizing nutrition; a practice far easier with a completely local, unprocessed, and organic food supply. Still, when given the option, they would choose the most nutrient dense components of what nature had to offer. In this way, beverages would be a source of nutrients in addition to a quencher of thirst. Perhaps the oldest and most well known comes from ancient China where the practice of drinking tea began. Here, the Chinese incorporated the beneficial phytochemicals of the tea plant with every sip of water. Throughout Eastern Europe, raw or fermented dairy products provided an easily assimilable source of a multitude of nutrients alongside hydration. In tropical regions, coconut water has always been known to nourish and hydrate much more efficiently than water alone. Wine and beer are both traditional plant ferments that have a host of benefits provided you consume them in moderation.
Putting this into practice, I may go through the better part of the day without plain water ever touching my lips. For example, I often start my day with a few ounces of hot water and few drops of lemon essential oil but by breakfast, homemade kefir accompanies my meal. With lunch is home brewed kombucha preceded and followed by my mid-morning and mid-afternoon cup of herbal tea. Perhaps by dinner I might have some plain water and very occasionally one glass of red wine. Total daily fluid ounces of plain water then might be 10-20; despite this, I don’t exhibit any signs of dehydration.
Instead of drinking a predetermined and fixed amount of water, it is preferable to listen to your body’s moment to moment feedback about its needs. This is most pronounced with our sense of thirst. When you are thirsty, you drink. Many practitioners complicate matters and instruct their patients to drink fluids regardless of thirst, stating that our sense of thirst is somehow deranged or unreliable. I’m not buying it, nor am I buying (or selling) cases of bottled water. Yes, it is common to crave foods for comfort and eat when not hungry, or have an addiction to alcohol and drink when not thirsty, but true thirst is unmistakable and VERY reliable in even the most dull members of our species.
This is not to say we should wait until we are parched before grabbing something to drink; more simply, we can use our thirst to more or less come to our own conclusions about how much fluid we require and then anticipate accordingly. The second parameter to factor is the utilization of those fluids which can very distinctly be observed by what comes out the other end. Your urine should be a pale yellow color. Too dark and you are not drinking enough, too clear and you are drinking too much – yes it is possible to drink too much.
In Chinese medicine, the over consumption of water is similar to an over indulgence of food. Both tax your organ systems: in the case of the water, too much strains kidney function while too much food injures the stomach.
As an additional clinical pearl, Chinese medicine teaches us that it is depleting to your body to drink cold water. Drinking ice cold water slows digestion and impairs stomach function, one of the results of which can be weight gain. In addition, someone suffering from chronic fatigue would do well to avoid cold foods and drinks as it takes a lot of energy on your body’s behalf to warm up those consumables to 98.6°. That energy would be better spent healing and supporting your health. If there is ever a question of energy economy, always look to improve digestion – eating warm, cooked, easy to digest foods – to liberate your body’s energy and shore up its reserves. It is not commonplace to see glasses of ice water at the dinner table in China; hot cups of tea are served to stimulate digestion and warm the stomach, priming it for the job ahead.
Finally, during exertion, what we require just as much as water is minerals. Taking salt tablets used to be a standard practice for endurance athletes. The minerals found in good quality unprocessed salt aids the kidneys and helps your body retain water properly. If you plan on drinking plain water or, heaven forbid, a sports drink, skip the sugar and artificial dyes and get all the electrolytes you need with a generous pinch of salt mixed in with your water. Cheap medicine isn’t any easier than that.