Whether you’re a competitive athlete, a casual exerciser, or mostly sedentary, hydration is vital for your health.
But staying hydrated doesn’t just entail chugging water. It's equally important to ensure that you’re consuming plenty of electrolytes while not taking in too much fluid.
In this article, we will review the importance of hydration for everyone (regardless of activity level), the proper way to hydrate, and the relationship between hydration and chronic pain.
Human beings, regardless of any other factors, cannot survive for very long without adequate hydration. There’s an old rule which states that survival is based on “3’s.” Specifically: a person can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 hours without shelter, and 3 minutes without oxygen. While these guidelines may not apply to everyone, they illustrate the point that some things are essential for staying alive.
So first and foremost, fluid intake is important because without it, we won’t be able to survive. Secondly, proper hydration, including appropriate levels of both electrolytes and fluid, allows us to perform at our peak potential.
The demands of sport at every level (high school, college, professional, etc) cause athletes to lose a significant amount of fluid in the form of sweat. These fluid losses need to be replenished in a sensible way during and after competition, or else the athlete will (sooner or later) begin to demonstrate decreased performance.
But sweat isn’t just made up of water. Sweat is composed of various electrolytes and substances in addition to, of course, water.
Some of the important electrolytes found in the body include:
So every time a person sweats (or loses fluid in another way, such as through urination), they are losing some of the above elements, in addition to stored water. With heavy competition in a hot environment; athletes will sweat even more, and having the right drinks available is absolutely essential. Without proper hydration planning for athletes, dehydration consequences can range from mild discomfort to death.
Furthermore, these electrolytes are necessary for our overall health. They participate in chemical reactions in the body, help to regulate Ph, and generally ensure that all of our systems are operating as intended.
One could make the argument that non-athletes have a less critical need for hydration than do their athlete counterparts. However, the prevailing health wisdom provides evidence to the contrary.
As we discussed in the last section, it is true that athletes lose much in the form of sweat during competition, training, and practice. But just because the average person might not always see as many immediate and detrimental effects due to their lack of hydration, they can still suffer consequences from decreased fluid intake and inadequate electrolyte levels.
Case in point, there is some evidence that the following common diseases and conditions are associated with improper hydration practices:
Thus far, we’ve examined the importance of proper hydration for different populations. But how does one actually hydrate most effectively? Let’s take a look.
At one point or another, you’ve probably heard the classic hydration advice: “8 glasses of water a day”. Oddly, this used to be the recommendation for everyone, regardless of activity level, body size, or any other factors. And truthfully, for most people, 8 glasses of water a day probably does provide enough liquid to serve their basic hydration needs.
However, updated guidance on this topic has shown that the answer is slightly more individualized than we previously thought. The newer maxim is “if you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.” Therefore, using thirst as a guide is now recommended rather than trying to drink a certain amount of water in a day.
But water itself is rarely good enough to fill all of your hydration needs. In fact, many people suffer from a lack of electrolytes or an electrolyte imbalance. Therefore, mixing in drinks with adequate electrolyte content may be helpful in improving hydration.
Besides water, some of the most popular drinks that have been touted as “perfect” for hydration are Gatorade, coconut water, and electrolyte supplements paired with water. But do these hydration sources live up to the hype?
With intense exercise, gatorade seems to be an okay choice in terms of limiting fluid and electrolyte loss, as well as preventing decreased performance. However, the amount of sugar in a normal serving size of gatorade is alarming, ranging between 21-36 grams.
While some sports drinks do provide certain amounts of electrolytes which can be beneficial in some instances, more often than not there are better choices that do not contain high amounts of sugar and unnecessary calories that may ultimately prove more harmful and than good.
In terms of athletic performance, coconut water does not appear to offer any additional benefit as compared to regular water.
Coconut water may be a good choice for non-athletes in order to encourage hydration. However, the drink should be consumed in moderation, as it has very high levels of potassium.
Supplementing water intake with electrolyte supplements may be beneficial for bothactive and sedentary individuals. This is the cleanest and most controllable form of ensuring proper electrolyte intake. Understanding the right balance of supplementation depends heavily on how many electrolytes you are getting from your normal diet through food. It is also important to double check the credibility and source of the supplement you are considering. Many companies make false claims around the actual benefits for hydration. When it comes to supplements, or really any change to your diet, it is always best to discuss plans and your individual needs with your doctor.
Nearly everything a person drinks and eats will help to keep him hydrated. For example, incorporating soups or bone broth into meals is an excellent way to take in more fluids that include vital electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.
Improper hydration has been correlated with altered pain perception. This finding has significant implications for chronic pain research, and provides patients suffering from chronic pain with an easy and relatively risk-free method for managing their symptoms.
Take back pain for example. When you’re not drinking enough water and getting a sufficient amount of sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride and electrolytes, there’s not enough to rehydrate your spinal disks (the rubbery pads between the vertebrae) and they begin to shrink ultimately leading to ‘bone on bone’ friction which can be very painful.
By maintaining proper fluid levels and the correct balance of electrolytes, many chronic pain doctors are finding that these changes can be part of an effective, holistic approach to treating their patients.
The science pertaining to health can often feel overwhelming. There are complicated processes happening at a cellular level that seem confusing and conflicting to anyone without a health background. This is as true of hydration as it is of anything else related to the body.
But when it comes down to it, hydration is pretty straightforward:
By following these three steps, you’ll ensure that you’re keeping your body nourished with fluid and electrolytes that will help you reach your peak potential.
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