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The dangers of over hydrating

In this article I'll be covering why getting fluid balance right is important, how to recognise the signs of excess water intake, and tips on how to effectively personalise intake according to your day-to-day needs.

Today we are hydration obsessed and everywhere you turn there’s a new alkalising, fruit infusing, charcoal filtering water vessel being advertised to help ensure you consume enough water. But what if our due diligence in this matter is doing us a disservice and we are, in fact, over consuming water to the detriment of our health, bodily functions and dare I say it sanity?

Ask anyone what is required to achieve optimal hydration status and you’ll be met with multiple variations on one key theme ‘you must drink 2 litres of water every day’. Whilst based on truth this, like so many nutrition and health ‘facts’ has been skewed and altered so much from the original, evidence-based recommendation that it no longer serves the purpose intended.

The recommendation to consume 2 litres of water daily is in fact a guideline for the total amount of water we should consume from all foods and beverages across the day and not a specific recommendation for pure water intake. Therefore, if you consume a range of fresh fruits and vegetables and drink a variety of water-based (e.g. teas, coffee and certain soft drinks) this all counts towards your daily 2 litre recommended intake. Those, glued to water bottles and, consuming 1.5-2L plus, in addition to a range of other fluids and high-water foods could therefore be consuming more than 3-4L of water per day.

Why is this a problem? Surely the more water the better, right? Well no! Fluid balance (the purpose for which we consume water) is, like everything in the human body, tightly regulated and must be kept within specific ranges to ensure cell structure, transport of nutrients and oxygen around the body, movement of toxins out of our cells, and communication between all structures in the body is possible. As such we have specialist mechanisms to ensure we take in enough fluids (thirst) and get rid of any excesses (needing to pee). When we have too little liquid in our bodies our brains detect this and make feel thirsty, so we have a drink. If we don’t we can feel tired, get headaches, feel physically weak, or even sick and our stress levels start to rise. However, when we are over hydrated and have too much water in our systems the vital nutrients, molecules and signals in our bodily fluids can become too dilute and this can also impact cell function, brain power and energy levels.

Whilst our bodies are generally good at eliminating excess fluid this can come at a price because we don’t lose pure water when we urinate. When you pee the electrolytes sodium, chloride and potassium as well as a whole host of other important molecules, water-soluble vitamins, hormones and proteins are lost down the loo too.

To help illustrate this further think back to GCSE science and the concept of solutions, dissolving things in them and osmosis.

Imagine yourself as a bucket. Once that bucket is full if you add more water what happens? - It over flows. Now imagine the fluid that fills your bucket has a range of sugars, salts and other nutrients dissolved in it. This fluid is fully saturated (i.e. nothing else would dissolve if you added it) with the perfect balance of the above needed and this creates a pressure that helps the bucket to retain its shape, and for the things dissolved in the bucket to move around freely, thus allowing the bucket to function as it should.

Now pour in another glass of pure water, with nothing dissolved in it. What happens? Not only does your fluid overflow but with it goes some of what was dissolved in that fluid. The bucket is still full but, the fluid is more dilute and no longer able to carry out its transportation and structure supporting duties. Counter intuitively this can make you feel like you are thirsty and develop a dry mouth so you then drink more water which adds to the problem.

Of course, this isn’t always the case and some of us may in fact be dehydrated so how can we tell?

The easiest way to figure out of you are over hydrated is to check your urine. Yes, have a good look at what you leave behind in the loo to see what colour it is. If what you are excreting is very light yellow or clear then it is highly likely you are drinking too much. Also, the speed and frequency with which you need to pee after drinking is a good sign too. If you have a glass of water and almost immediately need the loo you probably didn’t need that water, if you pee 2-3 time (or more) for every drink you are having you are probably also over hydrating.

Scale back, wait until you feel thirsty and then have a drink and check again. This method has been used by humans throughout time and we are still here so forget the phrase ‘if you’re thirsty it’s already too late’, this is exactly when you should drink.

One of the best things you can do is keep a bottle/pint of water next to the bed and, immediately upon waking, drink as much as you need to. This not only gives you an instant boost of energy that helps you get out of bed but, because our bodily fluids become highly concentrated overnight, by topping up your water levels first thing you’ll be a in a great position from which to keep better track.

Across the day try to drink a range of fluids and not rely on pure water, especially if filtered (which so much of it is now). Mixing filtered or mineral water with a little fruit juice, adding a pinch of sea salt and a lemon/lime wedge to bottled water, or purchasing a good quality electrolyte solution and adding a few drops to water a few times a day, in addition to your choice of consuming teas, coffees, milk and alternatives and occasional healthy soft drinks, can help to keep the balance right.

Eating healthy, natural plant foods across the day will also help keep both fluid and solute levels up so try to have 1-2 portions of raw or lightly cooked veg or a piece of fresh fruit with each meal.

Finally, it’s important to not get too fixated on the volume of fluid you are consuming each day. Aiming to drink 2L water every day will mean some days you are over hydrated and some days under, as our needs change on a day to day basis (more on this in part 2). Focus on drinking when thirsty, checking your urine colour and being mindful of how you feel and how frequently you are going to the loo will help you figure out if you are on the right track each day.

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