Mumble, stumble, fumble, grumble. If you’ve been feeling that way lately, brew a cup of peppermint tea, because your “umbles” may be signs of dehydration.
Advice about drinking water becomes trite and stale over time. Suggestions to drink 8 glasses a day feel like admonishments, and reminders that “the body is 80 percent water” are unhelpful. And yet, here I am, sounding the bells yet again, because good hydration is essential to physical and mental health.
All systems of the body rely on proper fluid balance. When we don’t drink enough water to replace what we lose, our bodies become dehydrated and stressed. Although a delirious trekker lost in the Sahara makes a colorful poster child, many effects of dehydration are not obvious and occur much closer to home. Spells of dizziness, constipation, and general declines in health may all be related to dehydration. Perhaps most critically, dehydration affects the mind. Severe dehydration can impair memory and concentration, but even mild dehydration can worsen your mood and cause you to feel tired.
Older adults are more vulnerable to water losses than younger people. As the body ages, the portion of it which is water decreases, down to just 55 percent. This reduced storage of water can be viewed as reduced resiliency to dehydration. Some health conditions may also predispose a person to dehydration. High blood sugar resulting from undiagnosed or uncontrolled type 2 diabetes and certain medications (including some blood pressure meds) cause increased water losses. These people need to drink extra fluids to compensate.
How much is enough? Thirst is a powerful feeling, but not a reliable judge of hydration status. By the time a person feels thirsty or parched, their body is already dehydrated, drawing water away from body cells. Some older adults may not feel strong thirst at all. The reflex diminishes with age, putting adults over 50 at greater risk of dehydration.
Mind and body cues other than thirst also indicate the need to drink fluids. If you find yourself craving a giant glass of iced tea this summer, seize the opportunity to notice what else you are feeling. How is your mood? Can you concentrate well enough to do math in your head or read an article? Are your mouth or lips dry? How are your coordination and dexterity? By monitoring your mental and physical states you increase your awareness of mind and body, and you may learn more cues of the need to drink water.
Preventing dehydration is key. To stay well-hydrated, drink fluids throughout the day. Avoid alcoholic or high-sodium drinks (some canned vegetable juices), which actually worsen dehydration. Water, it’s no secret, is the best beverage. To flavor water without sweetener or salt, herbs and citrus go a long way. When working outside, I like to put a sprig of rosemary in a pitcher of water to sip from throughout the day. Popsicles (that can be easily made with 100 percent fruit juice) are a great frozen liquid alternative. Fruits and vegetables are also sources of water, whereas salty foods contribute to dehydration. Drink extra water when you enjoy a salty snack.
A person loses water not only in urine and feces, but also imperceptibly, in the breath and through the skin. These unnoticed losses increase greatly on hot, dry days. As the days heat up, we should look out for ourselves and for those around us, who may need extra help or encouragement. Of course there are exceptions to the typical hydration advice. People with kidney disease or congestive heart failure have very different water requirements, which should be monitored by medical providers. But most people will benefit from extra fluids. And few can resist a juicy slice of watermelon (See the recipe for Watermelon Cucumber Salad).
— By Liz Diehl, MSN ('16), reviewed by Cristen Harris, PhD, associate professor at Bastyr University.