Thursday, November 5, 2015

Experience: There Is Such A Thing As Drinking Too Much Water

Every day I am bombarded with messages about drinking more water. From blog posts on how to make it easy, to government/health organisations warnings about the need to drink my 8 glasses per day. But did you know there is such a thing as too much water?

First up- I don't drink a great deal of other drinks in the day, except water. I have a couple of strong cups of coffee and a cup of peppermint tea each morning, then that's me done. If you drink tea or coffee throughout the day, then know that caffeine is a diuretic (meaning it pushes the water through your system and therefore you need more water).

Second, I get through 3-5 litres of water per day (depending on the temperature) and for those wondering how that equates on the whole 'glasses' measure- that's anywhere from 12-20 glasses of water. Yeah, I know.

And before we go any further- I'm not a medical professional and you should always seek advice from your GP or someone qualified before you make big changes to your diet/lifestyle, including hydration. The entirety of this post is based on my own personal experience.

So all that water, I should have the skin like a pre-teen girl, and practically brimming with wellness right? The many benefits of being properly hydrated are documents all over the place. Well, water might be good, but  drinking excessive amounts of water can be bad. The side effects are not pretty and they're not fun.

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What do you mean it doesn't have electrolytes in it sweetie?

How can you tell what excessive is- well despite a zillion fitness bloggers assertions to the contrary, clear pee is not good. Why? Because it means there's no waste product being flushed out. And that's bad because after your body is done getting rid of the bad stuff, it starts flushing out the good stuff.

Drinking a lot of water also flushes the electrolytes out of your body- the ones that are important for feeling lively, energetic and happy, the ones that help regulate things like blood pressure and hormone production. You'll feel tired, drained and if you exercise you might feel nauseous or  struggle to work at your usual level.

FYI- this is especially dangerous when you're sweating a lot because when you sweat you also lose an important electrolyte- sodium, and if you don't take on any electrolytes and continue to drink water, you're compounding the problem. Low blood sodium is grim, will make you feel really shitty and can be fatal in extreme cases.

I learned all about low electrolytes and sodium the hard way this year- I had no idea my hydration was causing me to struggle with my marathon training until someone with someone with qualifications in the nutrition field took a hard look at what I was eating and drinking. I also really struggled after I completed the marathon in October as the prolonged period of time sweating and drinking water (even though I was also drinking regular electrolyte drinks too) can be difficult to manage.

Drinking water, for me certainly, is also very habitual. Left unchecked I could and would probably drink even more water than I already do because picking up a glass is almost a reflex. Everytime I come off a call or change position in my chair or get up to do something, I drink from my glass. As a teenager and in my early twenties, I knew I didn't drink enough water, so I made myself do it. I suspect this is probably in part due to my personality type, but it's now a habit I find very difficult to break. It also means that my wine glass is most likely to be the first one empty and I'm likely to be the one who finishes her cocktail first- not just because I like a drink, but because having a glass in my hand is part of the habitual nature- it's created as many problems as it's solved.

It's no surprise that I have had to do something about my drinking problem. It's not been a barrel of laughs, but it beats throwing up in front of my running club (true story). Here's how I did it:

I added an electrolyte drink into my daily routine. They don't have to be ultra sticky sugary sports drinks- immune system boosters (the tabs you put in water and find in the supplements section) have a lot of the same electrolytes as sports drinks without all the calories and sugar. An instant boost to my system that's just like the big glass of water I've always thrown down my neck on waking up, but better.

'Close your eyes and it could be a margarita...' Mum on this week's detox drink.
That time mum & I tried coconut water. Sorry, but GROSS

Another seemingly obvious solution would be to drink less. Groundbreaking. This was easier said than done but a lot of the techniques recommended for drinking more can also be used to control drinking too. I drink sparkling water which is bottle in any case, but I've also used cups or bottles with a set volume and instead of finishing the bottle as a target, I use it like a ration system. This way I know exactly how much I've already had and I try not to exceed a certain amount either side of lunch- once it's gone, it's gone.

A side note, current guidance says you should be drinking approximately 2-2.5 litres of water per day (8-10 glasses). I struggle to get below 3 litres (12 glasses) and that works for me. Dropping below the 3L mark left me thirsty, tired and irritable. I also don't count water I drink before or directly after exercising or water I drink when I'm drinking alcohol.

Adding a glass of smoothie to my diet really helped me address the balance post-marathon. Drinking something with some actual nutritional value allowed me to get back on track, especially on the days where my appetite was non-existent. It's worth remembering that water is great for lots of things but it doesn't have anything it and that can be as bad as it is good.

Whilst unpleasant, the learning curve that came from my experience with hydration (and overdoing it) has been really fascinating in that it's taught me a lot about how some of my body's systems work and made me realise how little I actually knew about some functions or how many habits I assume are good for me, that aren't.

Grapes in a Glass
That time we added grapes to water and didn't turn into wine!

I can't stress enough that this has been a personal experience and that you should consult with someone who is properly qualified if you're concerned about how you feel before, during, after diet changes, exercise or major lifestyle changes. The point to my post is this: be wary that lots of guidance and hype in health and fitness is generic. It doesn't account for your own quirks or body type or habits you already have- drink more water is such a common piece of advice to read or hear, but remember it might not apply to you.
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