Water is essential for life. Without it, we can only survive a few days. Water ranges from 55% of body weight in the elderly to 75% in infants. It's a critical component of homeostasis, or balance (on a cellular level), in the human body.
We consume water through our diet, by drinking liquids that are or contain water and eating foods with water in them. We lose water primarily through sweating and excreting waste.
Our lifestyle balance of water intake and output determines our bodies’ physiological balance—the balance and fluidity of all of our bodily functions that keep us moving forward.
But one thing is certain: no matter what type of lifestyle – whether you're an athlete or not – hydration is paramount to your health.
When we have a significant loss of fluids, it is called dehydration. You might think the only side effect of dehydration is thirst. But in this post, we're going to identify the short term and long term effects of dehydration.
What causes dehydration?
Dehydration can occur as a short bout or over a longer period of time. Both instances have effects on how our bodies function and recover.
Dehydration is a significant loss of body fluids. Most of us assume this is due primarily to not drinking enough water; which, yes, it can be. However, dehydration is a two-way street: what goes in and what comes out.
So, the flip side of this coin is when dehydration occurs due to fluids leaving the body, such as excessive vomiting, diarrhea, or bleeding. More often than not, it’s a combination of both: excessive fluid loss and reduced fluid intake.
An example is when someone begins taking a new medication that has side effects of increased urination or sweating. If there's no change in intake (i.e. the person still drinks the same amount of fluids each day), and the output increases, there is a net loss of fluids daily.
This loss can put the individual at risk of dehydration. Another less severe example is seasonal changes. When the weather becomes very hot and we sweat more, we can be more susceptible to dehydration if we don't drink enough water.
Dehydration occurs when even our bodies can't make up for a lack of water in spite of our body's internal fluid balance.
The elderly and the very young are susceptible to dehydration because of decreased ability to regulate body temperature. The elderly tend not to drink enough fluids, and infants tend to lose a lot of fluids through vomiting and diarrhea. People with chronic illnesses that cause increased excretion (removal) of fluids, as well as people who tend to work outdoors in hot temperatures are also at risk.
Short term effects of dehydration
Symptoms associated with short term dehydration include feeling thirsty, dry mouth, decreased sweating or urination, dark-colored urine, dry skin, feeling tired, and/or dizziness.
These symptoms are usually mild and can be resolved by resting in a cool place while drinking some water.
A more severe case of dehydration would likely require emergency medical services to intervene. Symptoms of severe dehydration include confusion, fainting, rapid heart rate, and/or breathing, and/or stroke.
In this type of situation, fluids must be delivered directly into blood vessels in order to help the body utilize it faster and return to baseline.
Every person and situation is different. Most of the time, a singular instance of dehydration can be solved quickly and should be followed up with a more intentional fluid intake schedule.
It's important to note that drinking water is the preferred way to hydrate. Even though we can get water through food and other drinks, those sources often have other ingredients that require the water they contain to digest. When that is the case, our bodies do not receive the benefits of the water in those products.
Long term effects of dehydration
Long term dehydration, or chronic dehydration, occurs over a period of weeks or months. The effects can be seen due to sustained dehydration or frequent bouts of acute dehydration (discussed above).
Chronic dehydration has more severe effects on your bodily functions, and includes the following symptoms:
- Decreased blood volume
- Increased blood viscosity (blood becomes thicker)
- Decreased urine output (thereby increasing the amount of waste products within body)
- Decreased electrolytes
- Decreased kidney function
All of these can have profound effects on function. For example, electrolytes are important chemicals that assist with cellular functions throughout the body. Without them, our cells cannot function optimally, which can lead to symptoms of fatigue, muscle soreness, headaches, and/or dry skin.
Blood transports oxygen and other cellular products throughout the body. When we have less blood, we have less oxygen, hormones, and cellular wastes being transported to the appropriate cells. When blood gets thicker, the heart must work harder to pump it through the entire body. This extra strain on the heart muscle can lead to additional problems down the road.
Your kidneys are also a very important organ to consider with chronic dehydration.
The kidneys filter out the waste products in our blood and excrete them through urine. Urine is primarily water in order to dilute this cellular waste.
With dehydration, urination decreases, leading to a build-up of waste in the kidneys. This build-up can lead to kidney stones, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and/or overall reduction in kidney function.
If the kidneys lose 10% or more of their function, a person may be diagnosed with kidney disease.
Chronic dehydration can cause some very serious medical conditions. Luckily, prevention of dehydration is simple! Let’s move into discussing ways to stay hydrated.
How to stay hydrated
Staying hydrated is about both avoiding serious conditions associated with dehydration, and about providing our bodies with what they need to function optimally. Here are a few tips for staying hydrated:
- Drink water. As mentioned above, not all fluids are created equal, and many drinks can lead to dehydration (especially alcohol). To stay hydrated, water and the occasional electrolyte-containing sports drink are your best bet.
- Drink regularly, not just when you feel thirsty. Believe it or not, our thirst is not an accurate indicator of our level of hydration. Drinking water at regular intervals throughout the day regardless of thirst will help maintain hydration.
- Increase water intake during exercise, illness, and spending time in the heat. This will reduce both the risk of dehydration and heatstroke. Our bodies use more water in these situations, and it’s up to us to replenish what is lost.
One of the most common questions about hydration is: How much water should I be drinking? Roughly speaking, one half to one times your body weight in ounces should do the trick [i.e. someone weighing 150 pounds would drink 75-150 ounces of water per day]. If you're interested in a more precise measure, we have a daily water intake calculator you can use (click here to see how much water you should be consuming each day). It takes your weight and activity level into consideration.
We have other helpful resources to promote hydration.
Water is without a doubt the essential component for a healthy functioning body. Many of us are fortunate enough to have constant access to clean water. Take advantage of it! Provide your body with what it needs to conquer each day powerfully.
If you're serious about your daily hydration, grab one of our reusable Elemental water bottles.