Could this be the secret to quenching your cells & staying hydrated for longer?by Nicky Pellegrino
It’s not how much we drink, it’s how we optimise our fluid intake, say experts who are tipping contemporary thinking about rehydration on its head.
We’re not talking about some elixir here, just water, plain old H₂O that gushes from the tap. Consuming it is meant to be the key to everything from smoothing wrinkles to purifying the body. These days, you can’t move for people toting water bottles and sipping from them constantly: in the gym, on the street, in offices, parks and shops. It is a trend that has fuelled a bottled-water industry worth billions.
So, it seems pretty hard to swallow (pun intended) the claims made by Gina Bria and Dana Cohen in a new book, Quench. They say many of us are suffering from low-grade dehydration and that this is contributing to a host of modern ills including headaches, brain fog, fatigue, lack of energy, possibly even type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Bria is an anthropologist whose work has included looking at indigenous tribes from the world’s desert regions and how they survive drought conditions. Cohen is a doctor who takes an integrative, or holistic, approach with her patients. Both are evangelical about tackling what they see as an epidemic of dehydration.
Our grandparents weren’t clutching water bottles at all times and it didn’t seem to do them any harm. So what is going wrong? Bria says modern life is to blame.
“We live in a completely new environment, mostly indoors, in cars, offices and sealed homes, all very dehydrating,” she points out. “We eat less fresh food and substitute foods that dehydrate us, we take medications that dehydrate us further and we are subject to hot lighting and ever-more-present electronic devices.”
The answer isn’t to drink more and more water. Bria says all we are doing is flash flooding our bodies. “We’re guzzling water that is not absorbed by our system, which depletes our electrolytes and nutrients, dehydrating us even further,” she says.
She believes desert dwellers hold the secret to optimum hydration. “How do people who don’t have eight glasses a day survive and thrive? They are using strategies of hydration appropriating a different kind of water locked in plants and foods. Once you look for it, you find it’s a widespread practice.”
When her elderly mother, who is in a rest home, was struggling with dehydration, Bria had her eat more apples and drink orange juice laced with chia seeds to increase her moisture retention.
Eat for hydration
Meanwhile, in her Manhattan clinic, Dana Cohen has found that improving hydration is contributing to the well-being of her patients in a wide variety of ways. “I believe this low-grade, chronic or sub-clinical dehydration is rampant,” she says. “I see it on a daily basis and, by hydrating better, patients feel better – less fatigue, less headaches, less aches and pains, more mobility.”
Together, Cohen and Bria have devised the Quench plan. This involves hydrating more effectively by eating lots of water-rich plant foods – cucumber, celery, apples, watermelon, iceberg lettuce, leafy greens and fruits along with healthy fats, soups, bone broths, soaked or ground chia seeds (these release a form of gelled water that hydrates more slowly and effectively, says Cohen), coconut water and sea salt.
“Adding one green smoothie a day to your regimen is life-changing for a lot of people,” Cohen says. “A green smoothie is defined as blended greens – as opposed to juicing – where you’re keeping the fibre. If you experiment on yourself, you’ll see that hydrating this way is much more effective than by water alone.”
Our sedentary lifestyles are another reason many of us aren’t adequately hydrated, say the pair. Movement is required to push water through our fascia – connective tissue – and into our cells. The pair have developed a series of micro-movements – head tilts, twisting the spine, wiggling the toes or circling the ankles – so that even the chronically desk-bound can hydrate to a cellular level.
The wisdom of desert dwellers isn’t the only basis for the Quench plan. It is also informed by science, particularly the work of Dr Gerald Pollack, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington. His claim is to have identified what is variously described as gel water, structured water, EZ water or fourth-phase water. This is the fluid that exists in plants and in our own cells, and, Pollack says, it is denser, activated by light waves and negatively charged.
“If you don’t have enough of that water in your cell, it can’t perform properly,” he says.
Pollack describes himself as a revolutionary. Although it is fair to say he has had a mixed response from the science community, there is still much interest in his work. On an upcoming trip to Europe, he and his wife have been invited to stay with Heston Blumenthal, the chef famed for fusing science and cooking. And Pollack is revered by many of those with an interest in alternative health and wellness.
“The response has been extraordinary,” he says. “Sometimes, I’ll go to conferences and find huge numbers of people who want to be photographed with me or get my signature. It’s a bit embarrassing. I’m just a scientist.”
Like the authors of Quench, Pollack advocates replenishing our cells by drinking lots of green smoothies. He also advocates exposure to UV light, but when told this is a problem in New Zealand – which has the world’s worst rate of melanoma – suggests infrared saunas as an alternative. He has been researching how various substances help build EZ water. Turmeric, basil, coconut water and coconut fat all proved effective. “We also tried a poison – glyphosate – and, even in small doses, it made EZ water smaller and caused dehydration,” he says.
This is all a long way from the conventional wisdom that eight glasses of water a day will see us right – advice that appears to have no real basis in science. It seems to date back to 1945, when the US Food and Nutrition Board recommended that people consume 2.5 litres of fluid a day, adding a significant – but largely ignored – coda that much of this quantity could be found in foods.
As adults, we are about 60% water. It lubricates our joints, fills our cells, helps deliver oxygen round our bodies, forms saliva for digestion, flushes away waste, acts as a shock absorber for the brain and spinal chord, regulates body temperature and more. But exactly how much fluid we need to consume on a daily basis to replenish our water is highly individual. It depends on where we live, what we do and eat, how much we sweat and how fat or lean we are.
Measuring how well hydrated you might be isn’t straightforward, either, says Jim Cotter, a professor in the University of Otago’s physical education school. “It’s a really slippery notion,” he says. “What is hydration?”
Traditionally, athletes measure it by weighing themselves before and after an event, on the basis that the majority of the weight lost is going to be fluid. The rest of us can use the colour of our urine as a guide – pale yellow is healthy, dark suggests you are dehydrated – but that is not a foolproof method, either.
To Cotter, the best advice for those not engaged with extreme sports seems to be to drink to thirst.
“If we can’t be trusted to rely on our thirst, to me as a physiologist it’s an anomaly,” he says. “We regulate a whole lot of things to do with our temperature, glucose levels, CO₂ levels and acidity. We do all that without being told how, and yet we seem to have to be told how to drink. Why is it so special? I can’t help feeling we wouldn’t be here if we got that wrong.”
Our bodies are good at regulating fluid, up to a point. We have receptors that measure the volume of water we have on board and its concentration of solutes, largely sodium, so that, if we drink too much or too little, the body ditches or conserves it as needed.
“Evolutionarily, we have adapted to having water, then not having access to it, then having it again,” says Nancy Rehrer, an associate professor and colleague of Cotter. “Our bodies have always been going through these dips and our hormones respond. It’s a natural process.”
Becoming very dehydrated is obviously bad for you, as is drinking far too much. Hypnotremia – or water intoxication – is a peril particularly for marathon runners who consume large amounts of fluid, causing their sodium to drop to dangerous levels. In very severe cases it can be fatal.
Generally, elite athletes don’t get into trouble by over-drinking. “The front pack are running hard, they’ll take minimal time to drink and they’re sweating more because their heat production is greatest,” Rehrer says.
The super-fit are also less prone to dehydration because they have less body fat (so, more water) and their energy systems are releasing water along with stored glycogen from their muscles.
It is the less fit “weekend warriors” who are running slower, sweating less, and with more opportunities to drink, who are more prone to water intoxication. “I think there is a misperception that water cures all and that if you’re hot it will cool you down and improve your performance,” says Rehrer.
There are some situations in everyday life where upping fluid intake is appropriate. If you’ve had a stomach bug with vomiting or diarrhoea, it goes without saying that you’ll need more hydration. The elderly in rest homes can be prone to dehydration because their thirst signals can be less effective and often they are on medication that affects fluid regulation. Those with kidney problems – such as kidney stones – can benefit from more fluids, as can people on a high-protein diet, as they have a high urea output and need to flush it through the kidneys. Children can be at greater risk of dehydration than adults, and there is evidence that giving them extra water improves concentration and fine motor skills. But there is no simple guideline to be followed by anyone and everyone, despite all the research.
Solid fuel source
Dietician Ien Hellemans has worked with many of New Zealand’s elite sports teams and athletes. Although there is a lack of science to back it up, she thinks we could do worse than the old eight-cups-of-fluid-a-day rule.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing that,” she says. “And I think drinking to thirst is all right, too, but you don’t want to be extremely thirsty. When you look at fluid balance, we need two to two and a half litres a day. Some of that is produced by the body during energy metabolism. About 20% of the fluid we need comes from solid food. The rest has to be obtained from water. So drinking one to one and a half litres a day is enough to fulfil the body’s functions. And that’s not just water; it’s all your fluids. The eight cups doesn’t do any harm, but whether or not you need it …”
Most of us don’t need electrolytes, sports drinks or to add salt to our water, either; that is the domain of athletes who are sweating up a storm. “Even recreational athletes on the whole don’t need electrolytes. They get enough from their food,” Hellemans says.
Cohen and Bria advocate giving our water bottles a rest – quite apart from the fact they are not providing us with optimum hydration, bottled water uses vast resources and creates more waste – and hydrating more often with fruits, vegetables, roots and seeds. They maintain the result will be better sleep, a sharper mind, improved digestion, diminished inflammation, more flexible joints, and maybe even weight loss.
Both will admit to occasionally getting busy and forgetting to drink enough or eat well.
“But I can quickly get myself rehydrated,” Bria says. “In fact, I just flew 12 hours from New York to Bulgaria, using mostly food, water with a pinch of salt and micro-movements to arrive refreshed and ready for an important conference. If anything has me convinced we’re not hydrating by drinking all that water, it surely has been frequent flying.”
The hard stuff
Alcohol is a diuretic, although there is some evidence that moderate amounts of weaker beers can be drunk without affecting hydration status. However, even moderate consumption of alcohol ups the risks of cancer, particularly for women, according to a paper published in the Lancet in August. Researchers concluded there was no safe level of alcohol consumption. So, does that really mean we can’t enjoy a glass or two of wine a night? Well, admittedly, the health risks are low. Only four in 100,000 people who had one alcoholic drink a day had a problem caused by the drinking. Plus, researchers did acknowledge that light to moderate drinking seems to provide some protection against heart disease and diabetes.
This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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