By Dr. Beth Hodges
Your body is about 55 to 78 percent water. Water helps just about everything—aids digestion, lubricates joints, makes saliva, balances chemicals, delivers oxygen, cushions bones, and regulates your body temperature.
That’s why staying hydrated is so important. And, while most people associate dehydration with hot, humid, summer months, you can also become dehydrated during the winter or when you’re sick. Essentially, anytime you lose even as little as 1.5 percent of your body’s water, you can feel symptoms of dehydration.
You can lose water through sweating, urination, vomiting, and diarrhea. Taking diuretics can also increase urination.
Dehydration can sneak up on you because many of the symptoms may seem minor or unrelated.
Some common symptoms of dehydration include:
- Headache, confusion
- Dry mouth/dry cough
- Flushed skin
- Muscle cramps
- Dark-colored urine
- Loss of appetite
Dehydration makes you feel tired, weak, and sometimes dizzy. You may also get a headache. But more importantly, it puts stress on your kidneys and other organs. It causes urinary tract infections and kidney stones. It can disrupt temperature regulation, leading to heat illness or even heat stroke.
Often, you don’t feel any symptoms from dehydration until it is moderate or severe, and even then, the symptoms are so vague you might not realize the source.
Contrary to common belief, thirst is a later sign of dehydration. By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already significantly down on your fluid level. You might notice less frequent urination, but medications can sometimes alter the body’s normal reactions, so do not depend on this as a sign. The color of your urine can help determine your hydration level in many cases. During the day, your urine should be almost clear and colorless like water if you’re drinking enough fluids. Remember, some supplements and vitamins can change urine color, so this is not always a reliable indicator of dehydration. If your urine is dark yellow, orange, or even the color of tea, this can be a warning sign to drink more. If accompanied by dizziness, weakness, or confusion, you may need to seek medical attention.
Sometimes early signs of dehydration can be masked by certain prescription medications, like blood pressure or heart medications.
So, how much fluid does the average person need? This really depends on your overall health, your activity level, your exposure to hot or humid conditions, and the medications you take. On average, men need at least 15-16 cups (120-128 ounces) daily and women need 11-12 cups (or 80-96 ounces.).
You may have seen recommendations elsewhere for eight, eight-ounce glasses daily. This advice assumes some fluid intake from food sources. You can count all fluid intake but be aware that caffeinated beverages have a diuretic effect that causes you to urinate out more than you take in. I usually tell my patients to only count half of those amounts towards their daily total. On the other hand, you get some fluids daily from eating water-containing foods, such and fruits, and vegetables. If you’re going to exercise or be out in the heat, I recommend increasing your fluid intake by at least 20 percent.
Although water is the mainstay of hydration, electrolyte levels can suffer in extreme conditions, so be sure to get some potassium as well, unless you’re on a potassium-restricted diet. Foods such as tomatoes, citrus, potato skins, bananas, and peaches are all examples of potassium-rich foods. There are also sports drinks available that contain extra electrolytes, but these can be high in sodium, sugar, and sometimes calories, so I would limit these to a small portion of your overall intake.
As you get older, you may not be as thirsty, but it’s still important to drink water. If you’re caring for someone with dementia, it’s especially important to encourage them to drink water throughout the day.
Here are some tips for staying properly hydrated:
- Keep a water bottle with you—drink, refill, repeat!
- Choose water instead of sugary drinks.
- Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
- If you don’t like the taste of water, try adding flavor with fresh fruit.
- Eat more fruits and veggies—watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, pineapple, peaches, cucumbers (also good sliced in water), leafy greens, celery, zucchini, tomatoes, and radishes.
- Switch up your pasta! Try zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash instead of spaghetti noodles. It’s hydrating and healthy!
- Eat broth-based soups.
- Be a kid again! Break out the popsicles. There are lots of healthy, low-sugar options out there.
- Use technology. Yes, there are free apps that track your water intake and remind you to drink throughout the day. If you don’t want an app—set a timer that goes off each hour to remind you to take a drink.
As always, if you have conditions such as heart problems or kidney disease, talk with your doctor about how much fluid you should have daily.
Dr. Beth Hodges, MD is a family practice and palliative care/hospice physician in Asheboro, N.C., as well as a part-time medical director for HealthTeam Advantage.