The importance of Hydration
Proper hydration is not only essential for life - it’s critical for overall longevity and good health. Every single one of the trillions of cells in the body needs water to function. Yet, millions of us humans are chronically dehydrated despite conscious attempts to drink more water. So why is proper hydration so tricky?
Being hydrated and drinking water are not the same thing. We could drink water all day long and still not be hydrated, because proper hydration requires water to be absorbed by the body’s cells, which isn’t possible without the help of electrolytes. Whether human or horse, the body needs the appropriate balance of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other electrolytes to help bring water into the body’s cells.
The human body is at least 60% water, and of that, about 1/3 is located outside the cells - extracellular water - with around 2/3 is inside the cells - intracellular water.
Electrolytes are responsible for maintaining the appropriate balance between intracellular and extracellular water. They play a significant role in kidney function which regulates water balance, and while it can get a bit science-y, the take-home message is that drinking water alone (especially after bouts of heavy sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting in humans) without including electrolytes can cause dehydration to get much worse on a cellular level.
A lack of water and/or electrolyte imbalance (like too much water, not enough electrolytes, or vice versa) can cause the body’s cells to shrivel up or swell, depending on the imbalance, which directly affects their function. Even a low dehydration level is enough to impact cognitive function, resulting in loss of focus, confusion, headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness and fatigue.
We need water to convert food into energy, lubricate the joints, cushion bones, regulate body temperature, produce tears and saliva, as well as the mucus that lines the sinuses and GI tract. Plus - blood is 90% water. Dehydration means metabolic complications, high blood pressure, inflammation, joint pain, dry mouth, dry eye, constipation, and sinus infections.
The relationship between dehydration, chronic disease, and disease-related mortality is well-established. Last year, a study published in Nutrients looked at the hydration status of adults aged 51-70yo, and it found that 65% failed to meet hydration criteria. Remarkably, zero deaths related to chronic disease were reported in people who met the proper hydration criteria and had no chronic disease at the start of the study.
Dehydration was more common in individuals with insulin resistance, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure. It was also associated with an increased risk of mortality.
In most cases, the root cause of dehydration in our western world isn’t due to a lack of water availability, which means it must be related to something else. Besides not hydrating properly (with water and electrolytes), the Standard Crap Diet is likely to blame here. It’s loaded with refined sugar, starch, inflammatory fats and salt from artificial, ultra-processed foods. On average, caffeinated and sugar-sweetened beverages contain in excess of 40g of sugar, and let's not forget that alcohol and mixed drinks are also very dehydrating. Combine these together in a meal (which we often do) and it’s a recipe for dehydration disaster.
General guidelines for drinking water vary and rarely ever mention anything about electrolytes. When they are mentioned, it’s usually in reference to sports drinks that contain high amounts of sugar, artificial flavours and fake colours - our ancestors didn’t have sports drinks, and they did just fine.
We can get electrolytes from fruits and vegetables - bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes and squash are rich in potassium. Spinach and kale are full of calcium and magnesium. Add a pinch of sea salt to a home-cooked meal or a handful of nuts.
Where we live, our size, physical activity level, age, how much we sweat, and how much we travel, are all going to impact how much water we should be drinking, but it’s essential to recognise signs of dehydration to be sure we’re drinking enough. Dry, cracked lips? Tired? Thirsty? You may want to up your intake.
For humans, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommends women drink 2.7-litres water/day, men 3.7-litres/day – this includes water in food as well. You can add electrolytes to water using a high-quality electrolyte supplement, or squeeze ½ a lemon or lime into water with a pinch of sea salt. This ensures water is being absorbed and properly hydrating the body’s cells.
Proper hydration requires adequate water intake with the appropriate balance of electrolytes. Without it, we put the body’s cells at risk of dehydration and all the downstream effects that occur as a result of that.
Whether human or horse. 😉