Dehydration can put you out of commission...fast. It can turn your body’s energy factories into defunct wastelands. It can bog-down your brain. It can sap you of energy. Without enough fluids and electrolytes, even your body’s most basic functions can be sidelined.
Producing energy? Forget about it. Expelling waste products? Not a chance. The bottom line is, dehydration can drag you down, chew you up and spit you out on a cellular level. This article covers everything you need to know about dehydration, including how to prevent it in the first place. Let’s jump in!
How to Tell If You’re Dehydrated & How to Prevent It In the First Place
What Is Dehydration?
Dehydration is the loss of bodily fluids. But believe it or not, dehydration is more than just being low on fluids. There are actually three main types of dehydration:
- Hypernatremic or hypertonic = loss of water
- Hyponatremic or hypotonic = loss of electrolytes (mostly sodium)
- Isonatremic or isotonic = loss of water and electrolytes
Depending on the conditions, any of these types of dehydration can be mild, moderate, or severe. Severe dehydration happens when you lose over 10 percent of your bodily fluids. Moderate dehydration happens at greater than 5 percent fluid loss. Mild dehydration occurs at just 2 percent fluid loss, but side effects like poor cognition can begin even earlier.
How Does Dehydration Happen?
Dehydration can happen for a few different reasons, including:
- Hot temperatures
- Consuming diuretics like coffee and certain medications
- Intense exercise
- Eating a poor diet that’s high in sodium
- Becoming sick, especially vomiting and diarrhea
- Excessive sweating
In a nutshell, anytime you increase sweat and urination, you’re more likely to become dehydrated.
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity in the body. The most important electrolytes are:
Out of these, sodium, potassium, and chloride are the most essential (1). They work together in the body and must be present in the right ratios. If they become imbalanced, it can lead to several symptoms of dehydration.
Electrolytes and Dehydration
Electrolytes are used to control the muscles, synthesize cellular energy (ATP), stabilize blood chemistry, support the organs, and of course balance fluids. Dehydration that involves electrolyte imbalances can disrupt the essential functions of the organs and cells. Your body requires specific levels of electrolytes to carry electrical signals and balance pH (the ratio of acidity to alkalinity). Some parts of the body, like the heart and brain, rely more heavily on electrolytes. For example, a healthy heart depends on electrolytes (2).
On a similar note, electrolyte imbalances can lead to dehydration headaches, brain fog, and more. Plus, the brain is 85 percent water, so if you’re low on fluids too, the side effects can increase exponentially. Fortunately, both electrolytes and water are found in fruits and veggies, like spinach and bananas. At the same time, all-natural sea salt and Himalayan pink salt contain a diverse profile of minerals.
Here’s a quick overview of how the different electrolytes affect dehydration:
Chloride is a negatively-charged ion found in the blood. Its main job is to balance other fluids in the body. A significant change in chloride levels can lead to serious side effects, including death.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that’s needed for proper heart rhythms, nerve function, muscle contractions, bone strength, digestion, stabilizing the protein-fluid balance, reducing anxiety, and promoting sleep. Magnesium deficiency can lead to a variety of physical and mental health issues.
Sodium is a positive ion that functions outside of the cells. Too much sodium is a common problem for people who eat a typical western diet because it includes too many processed foods.
Potassium is a positive ion found inside the cells. It’s important for muscle function and regulating heartbeat. Significant changes in potassium levels can affect blood pressure and heart rhythm. Most people are low in potassium because they eat too much sodium, and these two minerals work closely together.
Bicarbonate acts as a buffer and helps maintain a healthy pH. Overly acidic body chemistry can contribute to inflammation and digestive issues.
Your hormones have a major impact on electrolyte levels as well... Electrolytes are secreted by the adrenal glands and kidneys, which are controlled by hormones like aldosterone, angiotensin, renin, and antidiuretic hormones. This makes it even more important to keep your hormones balanced with proper diet and exercise.
Dehydration Risk Factors
Who is most at risk for dehydration? Many elderly people experience serious health problems due to dehydration, especially when they’re sick or in the heat of summertime. During summer, dehydration is one of the most common reasons for dehydration in the elderly. However, athletes, young children, people who work physical jobs, and those with GI issues are also at risk. Let’s take a closer look at the people who have the highest risk of dehydration:
Elderly people often don’t drink enough water or eat enough electrolyte-containing foods. Plus, many of them lose the ability to notice the even most common symptoms of dehydration like thirst.
Children are at a much higher risk for dehydration. Infants are even worse because they lose fluids seven times faster than adults. To make matters worse, children tend to dislike drinking plain water.
Chronically Ill Patients
Chronically ill patients, especially if they’re vomiting or have diarrhea, lose fluids and electrolytes faster and are less likely to drink water (3).
People Recovering From Viruses or Surgeries
People recovering from viruses or surgeries might not drink as much water because they aren’t feeling well.
Endurance athletes, or anyone who works out for hours at a time, lose significant amounts of fluid through sweat.
People Who Have Physically Active Jobs
People who have physically active jobs, like construction workers, farmers, miners, and firefighters, experience higher rates of dehydration.
Residents Living in Hot or Humid Climates
Residents living in hot or humid climates need to drink more water because of increased sweating.
Endocrine Disorders and Hormonal Imbalances
Endocrine disorders and hormonal imbalances can cause the kidneys to excrete more electrolytes.
Eating a Poor Diet
Eating a poor diet that’s low in minerals can contribute to chronic dehydration.
People with Digestive Issues
People with digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), tend to have more issues with electrolyte imbalances (4).
Kidney damage can disrupt the body’s ability to regulate chloride in the blood and trigger deficiencies in sodium, magnesium, and potassium.
How to Tell If You’re Dehydrated
Feeling thirsty is the #1 symptom of dehydration, but that’s just the earliest sign. Other common signs of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth
- Muscle pain
- Tension in the neck or jaw
- Decreased urination
- Digestive issues
- Irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty concentrating (5)
- Mood disorders
- Impaired cognitive function, like poor memory, focus, memory, tracking, and other psychomotor skills
Symptoms of dehydration vary depending on the cause. For example, if dehydration involves an electrolyte imbalance, you’ll be more likely to experience cognitive issues. It’s important to recognize these early signs of dehydration before they become more serious and you have to visit the hospital.
Common symptoms of severe dehydration include:
- Extreme thirst
- Severely dry mouth
- Not sweating despite hot temperatures
- No urination
- Lack of tear production
- Low blood pressure
- “Loose” skin doesn’t “bounce back” when you press into it
- Rapid heartbeat
In extremely severe cases, dehydration can even trigger seizures.
How Much Water Should You Drink?
The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to put a number on how much water you should drink each day (6). However, the following guidelines can be used as a general rule of thumb:
- A good guideline is to drink enough water so that you urinate every four hours—anything less than this and you’re probably dehydrated.
- Your urine should never be dark yellow, but it shouldn’t be clear either—somewhere in between is just perfect.
- For most people, 8 to 10 glasses of water a day is ideal, but depending on the climate and how much you exercise this can vary.
- Women who are pregnant tend to need a little bit more: about 10-13 glasses a day.
- Teenagers and children who are growing fast should drink more too—so should anyone who’s taking antibiotics, hormonal pills, or other diuretics because they can cause you to lose fluids faster.
How to Prevent Dehydration
So what should you do to prevent dehydration in the first place? Drinking enough water, replenishing electrolytes, and being aware of how much water you’re losing are all important steps.
Drink Enough Water Daily
The fact of the matter is, if you don’t drink enough water, the other things you do won’t matter. It’s vital to drink enough healthy beverages throughout the day and listen to your body. The key is to drink steadily. Don’t wait until you're thirsty! By then it’s already too late. This is especially important during the summer months, but more on that in a sec...
Don’t like the taste of plain water? No problem. Here are a few healthy alternatives to plain water:
- Coconut water
- Fermented coconut water (coconut kefir)
- Homemade vegetable juices
- Fruit smoothies
- Herbal teas
- Bone broth
These drinks are low on ingredients that cause dehydration and high in electrolytes. For example, coconut water is one of nature’s most hydrating drinks — it contains plenty of amino acids, enzymes, potassium, and other minerals (7). If you don’t have access to any of the above beverages, you can always just add a little raw honey and lime or lemon juice to warm water.
However, the easiest way to boost electrolytes is to squeeze a flavorless hydration boost into the beverages you’re already drinking. Avoid drinks like alcohol, sweetened drinks, coffee, and caffeinated tea because they increase urination and promote dehydration.
Eat More Hydrating Foods
Here are 10 of the most hydrating foods:
- Coconut milk
- Citrus fruits, especially grapefruit
- Bell peppers
These foods are high in water content and electrolytes. Because of their balanced electrolyte profile, they also help to balance the overload of sodium that comes with eating too much canned, frozen, and processed foods.
Hydrate Before, During, and After Exercise
Exercise accelerates dehydration because it makes you sweat and burn more electrolytes. The best way to prevent dehydration is to hydrate early and sip electrolyte-enhanced water before, during, and after exercise. Drink a glass of water 15 minutes before your workout, and consume between 1.5 to 3 cups of water during your workout.
Consider the Weather
Drinking just 8 to 10 glasses of water a day may not be enough if you live in an area that’s really hot and humid. When you’re exposed to very hot temperatures, it’s important to drink even more. During hot months, make sure to dress appropriately—that means light clothing and plenty of sunscreen. Even if you aren’t physically active, you still need to plan for extra fluid loss. Remember, dehydration can seriously undermine your health. However, by following the guidelines in this article, you can stay on top of the hydration game and live your best life.
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