You may take water for granted, but your body doesn't. Every cell, tissue and organ needs water to function properly. You also need water to keep your internal temperature stable and eliminate waste products produced by your body.
Indeed, water is as important as oxygen for sustaining life. You could survive up to six weeks without food, but not more than a few days, maybe a week tops, without water. Even when you are inactive, your body loses more than a quart of water every day — through urine, perspiration, and sweat. And most days you lose 2.5 quarts. You also lose water when you exhale — up to one or two glasses a day in the form of vapor. With all that water going out, you need to replace what's lost. For most people, that's done without a second thought: You get thirsty; you drink. Simple.
"Normally, your body does an amazing job of maintaining proper fluid balance," says Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
With help from your kidneys, your body holds onto water when your system is a bit low and gets rid of it when there's excess. But what happens if the balance shifts to the point where your body becomes depleted of water? In other words, there's more going out than coming in. That's when you're at risk of dehydration, a potentially life-threatening condition if not treated promptly.
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"The best way to determine if you're getting enough water every day is to listen to your body," Dr. Shmerling says. "Are you excessively thirsty? Are you urinating less frequently than normal? Are you feeling unwell? Are you dizzy when you stand up? Is your mouth dry? While there are reasons other than dehydration that can cause these symptoms, if you can answer 'no' to all these questions, then you're probably getting enough water."
Your body usually can cope with extreme changes in water intake. But that's not true for everyone all the time, Dr. Shmerling says. Certain factors increase the risk of dehydration:
People who exercise strenuously, particularly in hot or humid weather, need to drink more water. It's also wise to avoid exercising outdoors during the hottest period of a summer day.
People living in hot, humid climates, or those experiencing a summer heat wave, need more water than usual. Vacationers take note: Don't forget to factor in the weather of your destination. A Chicago native may run three miles every day at home without taking water along, but the same trek on the beaches of a balmy Caribbean island could lead to trouble.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, as we age, the body's ability to conserve water is reduced. Over time, there can be a tendency to excrete more water (through urination and perspiration) than is taken in. In addition, those 65 or older may not feel thirsty even when their bodies need water. For some, it’s important to drink water before feeling thirsty.
Anyone who is sick with fever, diarrhea, nausea and/or vomiting should increase fluid intake. Kids and the elderly are at particular risk during illness.
People who take diuretics ("water pills" that increase urination) such as furosemide and hydrochlorothiazide must monitor themselves closely for signs of dehydration. "These medications are used to help reduce high blood pressure," Dr. Shmerling says. "But if the dose is too high or you start to drink less for any reason, dehydration can follow."
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Most of the time, dehydration doesn't reach the danger level. "While it's still mild, your body detects dehydration and leads you to behaviors that correct the problem," Dr. Shmerling says. "Either you get thirsty and replenish lost fluids (by drinking water) or you reduce fluid loss (by cooling off and resting)." However, mild dehydration can become more severe if fluid isn't restored. As you lose more water from your body, you may experience symptoms such as dry mouth, flushed skin, fatigue, headache and impaired physical performance. With severe dehydration you may not feel thirsty. "Eventually, dehydration can lead to low blood pressure, which reduces the ability of your body to circulate oxygen and other nutrients throughout your body," Dr. Shmerling says. "The end result may be dizziness, loss of consciousness, rapid heart rate, kidney failure and finally death."
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To prevent dehydration, you need to take in plenty of fluids throughout the day. Follow these eight tips to achieve the fluid intake your body needs, but keep in mind that many foods contain water, so drinking eight glasses of water per day may not be necessary. If you tend to become dehydrated for any of the reasons mentioned above, you can take the following measures:
1. Take water breaks throughout the day.
2. Take a sip of water when you pass a water fountain.
3. Carry a bottle of water with you in your car.
4. Keep a water bottle with you at work.
5. Drink a beverage with each meal.
6. Drink more when exercising, especially if it's hot or humid. Drink one or two glasses of water or diluted fruit juice (one part juice to one or two parts water) about 30 minutes to an hour before you begin. Drink another glass or more when you're finished. For more intense and longer workouts, increase your fluid intake to 8 ounces every 20 to 30 minutes. (Skip the high-calorie sports drinks unless you're working out strenuously for at least 90 minutes.)
7. Consider foods as sources of water, too. Lettuce, watermelon, broccoli, grapefruit, carrots and apples are all more than 80% water by weight. Low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt, potatoes and canned drained tuna all contain more than 70% water by weight.
Don't include beverages containing caffeine (coffee, colas) or alcohol when tallying your daily fluid intake. These act as diuretics, causing water loss.
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