Want to lose weight? Drink more water. Dream of better skin? Drink more water. Crave more energy? Drink more water. The liquid, says Jennifer Sommer-Dirks, a registered dietitian and nutrition manager at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, “has been touted as a miracle” substance for years. It’s also increasingly visible on store shelves in varieties like coconut, maple and watermelon and in people’s hands as either still or sparkling, flavored or plain. “You always see people walking around with these giant gallon water bottles,” Sommer-Dirks says.
Much of water’s praises are due: On a most basic level, we need water to live; our cells and fluids are largely made of the stuff. It’s necessary to regulate body temperature, keep muscles and joints limber, keep blood flowing to your kidneys and flush out waste. Experts estimate that most people in most conditions couldn’t live more than a few days – max, one week – without water.
The problem? “[The cells] are basically looking and saying ‘the ratio of these things’ are out, and they can’t function the way they should; they can’t produce energy the way they should,” he said. “To remedy the situation, the cells basically just push water out.” Cue frequent – once an hour or more – urination.
1. Know the general guidelines.
Divide your weight in pounds in half. That’s a very general idea of about how many ounces of fluids – juice, non-caffeinated teas and other liquids included – you should be drinking each day, Sommer-Dirks says. Then, adjust. People who live at high altitudes, exercise (and sweat) more and weigh more, for example, typically need to consume more liquids too. “Drink to [quench] thirst,” Sommer-Dirks says. “There’s no reason to be chugging water if you’re not actually thirsty.”
2. Consider your electrolyte intake.
“Too much water” is, of course, relative. The right amount for you is not only unique to your own body, environment, diet and activity level, but also to your electrolyte level, Mangieri emphasizes. “It’s not simply drinking too much water that’s the issue – it’s drinking too much water without consuming enough of the electrolytes needed to keep your body in fluid balance,” she says. She helps athletes – especially those who are “heavy sweaters,” whose sweat tastes salty and leaves white stains – increase their sodium, chlorine and potassium intake rather than decrease their fluid intake.
“If you are participating in activity lasting longer than one hour and sweat a lot,” she says, “make sure to replace both fluid and electrolytes lost in that sweat.” Sports drinks or water paired with gels or even preceded by a salty snack can do the trick.
3. Know the symptoms.
On a daily basis, you can assess your hydration by monitoring the color of your urine, which should be light yellow, Sommer-Dirks says. The National Kidney Association says peeing about 6 cups a day is normal (though it’s up to you to figure out how to measure that). During lengthy exercise, beware of symptoms like headaches, muscle weakness, twitching, vomiting and confusion, which can precede hyponatremia, Mangieri says. Keep in mind that some of the same symptoms can signal dehydration.
4. Consult the pros.
If you’re not sure if you’re getting the appropriate balance of liquids and electrolytes, consult a registered dietitian who can help you figure out what works best for your body, Sommer-Dirks recommends. (People with disordered eating patterns should seek someone with expertise in that area – the National Eating Disorder Association and the Eating Recovery Center are good places to start – while athletes could benefit from an expert in sports nutrition.) Fortunately, most people drink a fine amount of water without even thinking about it. “It is hard to unknowingly consume excessive water to the point where it’s going to cause harm,” Sommer-Dirks says. Cheers – within limits – to that.