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Hydration: water's role in the body and tips to staying hydrated

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Pillars of Wellness Part I of 6 - Hydration

We’ve all heard it before that we need to drink more water. It has been said over and over again that we need to drink eight 8oz glasses of water a day. But have you ever wondered why?

Well, to begin, water is the MOST important nutrient in the body. You read that right. Yet, water [hydration] is often the last essential nutrient to be thought of. We think of the macronutrients - protein, carbs, fats - yet water is more important. That’s because the body can produce about 8% of its daily water needs through metabolic processes - the remaining 92% must be ingested through the foods we eat (28%) and beverages we drink (64%). Unlike fat - water cannot be stored - this is why we MUST drink water EVERY DAY!

Water plays numerous roles in the body's functionality - much more than just simply flushing toxins. How much water you drink affects electrolyte balance, digestion, liver function, kidney function [tip: drink water to prevent kidney stones!], cardiovascular and immune system function, mood and energy levels, body temperature regulation, healthy connective tissue, and more. To be clear - just about every organ and system in our body depends on water to do its job. Below, is a list (not exhaustive) of the role water plays in our body.

Water’s role in the body

  • Electrolyte balance

  • Normalizes blood pressure and stabilizes heartbeats

  • Nutrient and oxygen transportation

  • Enables cellular hydration

  • Moistens oxygen for easier breathing

  • Removes waste and bacteria from the body

  • Helps alleviate constipation

  • Regulates body temperature

  • Empowers the body's natural healing process

  • Enables the digestive process (think forming stool and bowel movements)

  • Brings fluid inside/outside cells

  • Repairs muscles

  • Cushions bones and joints

  • Absorbs shock to joints and organs

  • Prevents tissue from sticking (dehydration makes you less flexible)

  • Lubricates joints (joint pain can be a sign of chronic dehydration)

You can see that water plays so many roles, yet approximately 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Why is it so hard for so many to get enough water? Well, I think for one part it's the taste - water doesn’t carry the “sexy” taste that soda, coffee, alcohol, or other sugary drinks have. Our taste buds have adapted and become hyper-palatable to sweeter, more addictive tastes, like sugar. However, the body can easily adapt back if given a chance. Below are several signs of dehydration to look out for and which are often mistaken for another ailment.

Signs of dehydration

Early signs of dehydration

Advanced signs of dehydration

Chronic signs of dehydration

  • Digestive issues

  • Thirst

  • Fatigue

  • Dry mouth

  • Decreased urination

  • Darker urine

  • Digestive issues

  • Dizziness

  • Decreased urination

  • Cravings

  • Muscle cramps

  • Anxiety

  • Headaches/migraines

  • Degradation in memory and ability to concentrate

  • Lackluster skin

  • Brittle/weak hair

  • Heartburn

  • Joint pain

  • Back pain

  • Constipation

  • Colitis

  • Exercise asthma

  • Fever

  • Rapid/irregular heartbeats

Dehydration can impact overall moods and cognitive functions, contributing to a lack of concentration, along with impairments in vision, perceptive discrimination, tracking, recall, attention, psychomotor skills, memory, and even self-esteem. Advancement in dehydration doesn't take long - even a 2% loss can create havoc in the body. There are also things that can increase dehydration, including diuretics, like coffee and alcohol consumption, activity level, environment, and so on.

But, how much should one drink? It's fairly common to see the recommended water intake of 64oz (eight 8oz glasses) a day, but it varies depending on your age, sex, activity levels, outdoor temperatures, and pregnancy and breastfeeding status. For example, if you work outdoors, you will require more water intake and people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes require more water intake. And remember that total water intake comes from drinking water/beverages and food consumption. The most effective way to decide how much water is needed and maintain adequate hydration, accounting for your age, activity level, and environment, is by watching for potential signs of dehydration - such as urine color and urine output. Below is a chart for things to look for in order to maintain adequate hydration, along with the adequate intake of water level.

Signs to look out for to maintain adequate hydration

Physical Symptoms: Pay attention if you have a dry mouth, headache, or are feeling thirsty*. Hunger vs. Thirst: Learn to recognize the difference between thirst and hunger cues. Urine Color: It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the color of your urine. If you are hydrated, then the color will be light yellow. Darker shades of yellow indicate that you aren’t getting enough water. Urine Output: The volume of urine is another indicator of hydration. *remember that thirst signals decline with age

[Note] It's important to note that this amount is not a daily target, but a general guide. In the average person, drinking less will not necessarily compromise one’s health as each person’s exact fluid needs vary, even day-to-day.

Importance of electrolytes

Note, that water itself will not hydrate the body. The body needs electrolytes (trace minerals) to stay properly hydrated and flush out toxins. Hydration includes both water and electrolytes.

It's not just about drinking *more* water - our body needs proper electrolytes to flush out toxins and according to research, supplementing with electrolytes can reduce the amount of fluid necessary to consume and transport during activity. It's all about finding the balance - too much water and not enough electrolytes will over-hydrate (dilute) the body, and too much electrolytes and not enough water can dehydrate the body (think drinking ocean water). Some of my favorite ways to add in electrolytes, without drinking the sugary sports drinks, is using a pinch of sea salt in your glass of water, Trace Mineral drops, or coconut water. It's especially important to supplement with electrolytes when working outdoors, or in hot temperatures.

Tips to staying hydrated

Below are some ways to increase water intake.

Remember, small changes can produce big results. Start small - maybe increase by one cup a day or replace your daily dinner drink with water. Overtime, you will learn to crave water - and your body will thank you!