Water, Energy, and the Perils of Dehydration

by Nicholas J. Gonzalez, M.D., contributor for GreenMedInfo.com

What if water, plain and simple, was the most critically lacking substance for energy and health promotion in the modern lifestyle? 

Some years ago, I read the late Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj’s marvelous book, Your Body’s Many Cries for Water, first published in 1992 and more recently updated in 2008.  Here this Iranian-American physician made and makes a strong case that chronic low grade and usually unrecognized dehydration affects most of us in the West, attuned as we are to avoiding water as a beverage and too often choosing dehydrating caffeinated and sweetened drinks that only contribute to the problem.  After all, caffeine is a well-known diuretic, as is sugar.  We may think when we imbibe sodas, coffee, energy drinks, or for the healthier among us, even herbal teas, that we are in effect ingesting adequate “water.” But as Dr. Batmanghelidj points out, such intake only makes dehydration worse, causing a greater water loss overall than we take in.  For example, for every 10 ounces of a caffeinated beverage, be it coffee, black tea, soda pop or an “energy” drink, we can lose up to 12 ounces of water, a loss contributing to, not resolving, low grade chronic dehydration.  Even the healthy favorites of non-caffeinated herbal teas dehydrate, due to the complex combination of diuretic molecules in the brew as well as the osmotic effect.

After reading this book and the several that followed, I began to suspect that many of my patients, often diagnosed with life threatening malignancies and other serious degenerative diseases, appeared to be chronically dehydrated, though virtually none expressed any sensation of thirst.  Many, when first starting treatment with me, acknowledged that they never drank any water at all, relying instead, and mistakenly, on a variety of other beverages including dehydrating herbal teas they assumed provided for all water needs.  For many years I have routinely recommended my patients drink a minimum of 6-8 glasses of water a day in addition to whatever other liquids they might ingest such as the recommended vegetable juices.  More recently, after giving greater thought to the subject, I have been recommending now 8-10 glasses a day, along with one half teaspoon of good quality sea salt, such as Himalayan or Celtic Sea Salt.  And, I have been surprised by the unexpected results.

Recently, one patient’s cholesterol, despite intensive nutritional supplementation including those anti-cholesterol nutrients such as carnitine, etc. a proper organic diet and intensive detoxification routines, continued to rise toward the 300 level.  When I questioned him, he readily admitted that though I had suggested he consume 6-8 glasses of water daily, he assumed that the four glasses of prescribed carrot juice and a remarkable eight cups of organic herbal tea would serve as equivalents to drinking plain water, which he found tedious to do and distasteful.  When I instructed him that he immediately eliminate all herbal tea from his diet substituting instead the recommended water, within six weeks his total cholesterol dropped 63 points and his HDL, the alleged “good” cholesterol, went up considerably.  Water intake had done effectively in six weeks what many heart-friendly supplements and an ideal nutritionally replete diet had failed to do in a year.

Dr. Batmanghelidj provides an interesting explanation for such cholesterol drops, as I have now observed in my own practice. Water certainly serves many functions in our body, as a solvent in the blood, as well as “filler” in the extra and intracellular spaces, but it also functions as a main adhesive in cell membranes, keeping them intact while yet fluid, allowing the necessary passage of molecules in and out of the cell. As a polar molecule, water’s electrically charged surfaces keep the complex molecules that make up the membrane itself in place, where they are supposed to be. In a state of deficiency as the water level in the membranes falls, the movement of nutrients into the cells and wastes out becomes significantly less efficient, and the membrane structure itself becomes less stable. In this situation, if chronic, the liver begins synthesizing and releasing cholesterol into the bloodstream; this lipid can then substitute for water as a last ditch adhesive in the cells, to keep their membranes functional. So, an elevated cholesterol in the context of undiagnosed chronic water deficiency reflects the body’s wisdom, rather than some random or genetic mystery.

Dr. Batmanghelidj also makes a case that diabetes may be another result of chronic subclinical water deficiency. To understand his argument, as a start I think it would be useful to summarize, though briefly, what insulin does. This hormone, through a complex receptor system and signal transduction in the target cells, drives glucose across membranes so it can be used by cells as an energy source. Along with the glucose, other substances including potassium, certain amino acids, and importantly, water pass into the cell interior. As Dr. Batmanghelidj points out, this insulin-stimulated flow of water from the extracellular to the intracellular space can be a problem with even mild dehydration, leading as it can to further depletion of the body’s extracellular fluids and reduced blood volume. Since neurons are 85% water in their healthy state and since the brain receives and requires fully 20% of our total blood supply, carrying with it oxygen and essential nutrients, the effect of vascular volume depletion can be catastrophic. Dr. Batmanghelidj argues that to preserve its own blood supply and the integrity of its nine trillion cells, the brain, through prostaglandin and neurologic signaling, suppresses insulin synthesis and secretion. This in turn reduces the constant flow of water into the various cells of the body, conserving water to satisfy the brain’s own requirements. Of course there’s a tradeoff, reduced fluid supplies to most cells in order to meet the water demands of the central nervous system.