When we talk or hear about proper hydration, we often think it’s a problem that can be solved simply. The majority of Americans don’t drink enough water, so the solution is to start drinking more water. Right?
However, the real goal should be maintaining a proper water and sodium balance in your body. Yes, we’re actually mostly water ourselves (men are around 60 percent and women 55 percent on average), but that’s not all we need to stay at our best. Too much water and too little sodium can lead to exercise-associated hyponatremia, which can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and even death.
If you’re exercising for extended periods of time, even if it’s only a moderate or low-intensity workout, you could lose enough sodium from sweat that only drinking water could cause you problems. High-intensity workouts, like those performed by Ironman or marathon athletes, are definitely at greater risk. They can’t do every workout on water alone.
Although I’m not saying stop drinking water, it’s important to include an energy drink and healthy snacks with the water bottle you already take for workouts. Even if you’re not at risk for death, your body will fatigue faster and begin to slow down if you don’t help it stay regulated.
Here are some pointers to keep in mind.
Doesn’t matter the season
I was a swimmer all the way through high school, and if there’s one thing we had to constantly be reminded to do, it was to drink enough water. Being in a pool for hours at a time definitely threw our bodies off sometimes. Even though we’d be working hard and probably sweating like crazy, it’s not exactly noticeable when you’re in the pool.
The same thing can happen in the fall, winter or spring. It’s not 95 degrees outside and you may not be covered in sweat, but just because you don’t always notice it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It also doesn’t mean your body is going to be any less thirsty. Dehydration is often more of an issue in the colder months simply because we’re less likely to think or worry about it. But it’s important to keep drinking water no matter the activity or time of year. Don’t keep drinking if you’re not thirsty, but usually (more on this later) your body will let you know when it’s time to take another sip.
Proper amount of sodium per day
Expert opinions vary, but most major health organizations recommend between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams of sodium in your daily diet. Almost all Americans exceed these guidelines, as the average is about 3,400 mg a day-and plenty of people go well above that. Unless you’re dieting and eating home-cooked meals every single day, it’s going to happen. It’s not just because of stuff like pizza and burgers. Go to nearly any major food chain and you’ll almost certainly find several items with 2,000 or 3,000 mg of sodium. Honestly, that fact alone is the reason EAH isn’t more commonly heard of or diagnosed. If we all ate like the experts told us to, there’d be a lot more coverage of this issue. The best advice is to follow any instructions from your doctor. Otherwise, eat a healthy diet of real food as much as possible, and don’t go to either extreme when it comes to sodium. Stick to a reasonable amount.
Proper amount of water per day
The commonly cited recommendation says that we should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, which is about 2 liters or half a gallon. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and the goal of this recommendation is twofold: Make people aware they’re probably not currently getting enough water and give them an easy-to-remember number to aim for. Is it exactly how much you or I need each day? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how much you weigh, how much you exercise and how much you sweat. If you’re on any prescription medications, the number could also be higher because many of them make you dehydrated. The best advice is pretty simple: If your body is telling you you’re thirsty, drink some water. If it’s not, then don’t.
That works-except when …
The only problem with this method is that if your body is suffering from EAH, it may think you’re thirsty and is telling you that you’re thirsty, but what’s really wrong is that your sodium levels are out of whack. Your body doesn’t exactly know how to say, “Give me salt.” Yes, it can try to tell you that you’re hungry, but by the time you’ve reached a major sodium imbalance, your body isn’t working at full capacity. Some signals are going to get crossed. Your mind and body aren’t in perfect sync, so you may end up with the wrong information. If there’s any doubt in your mind, eat something. Grab a healthy snack bar or nuts-but if you’re out hiking and the only thing in there is a Snickers bar, just eat it.
Remember that most times your body will get its signals right. EAH isn’t common and death resulting from it is relatively rare, but it can happen. Football players and hikers have died from EAH in recent years, so don’t take this problem lightly. Most of the time, though, if you don’t skip any meals and don’t go overboard with an extreme eating and exercise diet, you’ll probably be OK. Just don’t assume that more water is always your best option. As with anything in life, don’t risk having too much of a good thing.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.