Free and clear: Water is a health 'food' not to be overlooked

Since he turned 50, Scott Thompson has tried to stay on top of his water intake. He drinks two to three glasses before his morning coffee. He's sure to stay hydrated throughout the day, and he has two glasses when he gets home from work. "(Water)...

Photo illustration by Gary Meader,
Photo illustration by Gary Meader,


Since he turned 50, Scott Thompson has tried to stay on top of his water intake. He drinks two to three glasses before his morning coffee. He's sure to stay hydrated throughout the day, and he has two glasses when he gets home from work.

"(Water) keeps all your organs and everything functioning," said the 57-year-old Superior man.

"I'm not a health nut," he said. "It's something easy you can do that's good for yourself, and water's free."

The body is 65-70 percent fluid, and we lose water through urine, feces, sweat, even breathing. Being properly hydrated helps regulate temperature, flush out waste and prevent constipation, lubricate and cushion joints, protect your spinal cord and other sensitive tissues.


"It also helps control the electrical current for our heart," said Brenda Schwerdt, clinical dietitian at St. Luke's. Sixty to 100 ounces, about eight glasses, is a daily standard for water intake, but not for everyone. Body size, weight, height, age, activity, weather and medical status are factors.

"I work a lot with people going through chemotherapy; we want them to get more fluids to flush," she said.

While water is the best thing for us, hydration comes from fruits and vegetables, tea, coffee, even beer in limited amounts, said George J. Trachte, Ph.D., interim department chair of biomedical sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus.

"In the Middle Ages, the water was contaminated, so drinking beverages like beer or mead, that was how people got their fluids. If they drank the water, they would get sick."

In excess, caffeinated or alcoholic drinks act as a diuretic, causing more output and potential dehydration. A standard amount is one or two beers; three or four cups of coffee a day, he said.

You'll notice clearer urine when consuming larger amounts of alcohol. That's because the hormone that regulates the concentration of urine shuts off, and the body ends up dumping all fluids, Schwerdt said.

Our urine should be clear and have a light color. If it gets to a full yellow or darker, those are signs of dehydration.

Schwerdt often sees dehydration in her practice, especially in those already ill with diarrhea or vomiting, she said. Dehydration is measured by fluid loss, and while it can happen quickly, it's a gradual process marking an imbalance in electrolytes. An increase in sodium, potassium, phosphorus can lead to a variety of symptoms.


First signs are feeling thirsty, dry mouth, lips and skin. You may notice feet or hands get puffy due to more fluid in the body cavity and in the bloodstream.

Lack of fluids can affect cognition, according to a 2010 study published in Oxford University Press' Nutrition Reviews, which noted other affected abilities:

• concentration

• short-term memory

• alertness

• perceptual discrimination

• arithmetic ability

• visuomotor tracking


• psychomotor skills (coordination, dexterity, speed)

You may also feel tired, sluggish, muscle weakness, headaches and dizziness. If it worsens, our heart rate can increase, blood pressure drops; we may experience anxiety.

Lethargy, confusion are signs of really severe dehydration, Schwerdt said.

"You don't make as good of decisions if you're dehydrated," Trachte added. "We also get crabby."

A consistent effect of mild dehydration is significant elevations in confusion, anger and vigor, according to the 2010 study.

Schwerdt's not one to carry a water bottle, she said, but it's not necessary to stay hydrated. Drink during meals, replace electrolytes with sports drinks, and for kids, she recommended Pedialyte. The body responds quickly to fluids, and it's really good at maintaining fluid status.

Another benefit to staying hydrated is more fluids reduce the risk for urinary tract infections, Trachte said.

It is possible to get too many fluids. Overhydration means headache, nausea, sleepiness - the same symptoms for not enough fluids, Schwerdt said.


There's also water intoxication, or hyponatremia, occurring when sodium levels are too low.

Drinking large quantities of water in a short period of time can throw off the body's balance of electrolytes, and you're consuming more liquid than the kidneys can remove, fluid can collect in the bloodstream.

It's rare, but electrolytes that drop too low, too quickly can cause brain swelling, seizures, coma or can lead to death. In 2014, a 17-year-old Georgia teen died after he drank 2 gallons of water and 2 gallons of gatorade during football practice. In 2007, a 28-year-old died after consuming 2 gallons of water as part of a radio promotional challenge.

Best way to intake your daily recommended fluids is gradually, Schwerdt said.

Added Trachte: "We have a built-in mechanism that to tell us that we're dehydrated. ... When you're thirsty, drink."

What To Read Next
Get Local