Reprinted from MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 84.
Do you drink enough water?
The Health Benefits of Drinking Water
A number of years ago, the Swiss put together a fine
mountain-climbing team, hopping it would be the first to
scale Mount Everest. Many months went into the group’s
preparation because of the tremendous demands that would be
made upon human energy in the effort to reach the top of
the world. Unfortunately, despite all that careful
planning, the Swiss team had to abandon the attempt because
of sheer exhaustion, not realizing that a source of relief
was covering the ground all around them.
A year or so later, when a group of British climbers
undertook the same challenge, their team physician, Sir
John Hunt, remembered that the Swiss had consumed only two
cups of water per day during their assault on the mountain.
Dr. Hunt recommended that the U.K. team carry additional
snow-melting equipment, since he believed that the climbers
would function better if they drank more water. He felt
that when working in the thin, chill air, people lose a lot
of water not only through perspiration, but also through
respiration, because the air entering the lungs has to be
humidified as it’s brought nearer to body temperature.
Therefore, the doctor insisted that each British
participant drink a minimum of 12 cups of water daily.
That team, headed by Sir Edmund Hillary, followed his
advice and became the first expedition to plant its flag on
the summit of the world’s highest peak.
Little-Known Scientific Facts About Water
In order to further examine Dr. Hunt’s theory about how
water consumption affected endurance, a Harvard
physiologist, G.C. Pitts, tested groups of male athletes
by putting them on treadmills timed at 3-1/2 miles per
The subjects in the first group were given no water at all
and were asked to walk until they were so fatigued that
they could go no farther. These athletes lasted about 3-1/2
hours. Their temperatures rose rapidly during the test
period and, in the exhaustion phase, finally reached an
average of above 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
The members of the second group were allowed to drink as
much as they desired, and their temperatures didn’t rise
nearly as rapidly. However, after approximately six hours
of exercise on the treadmill, as the men reached
exhaustion, their body heat zoomed up.
Finally, Dr. Pitts chose a third group and carefully
calibrated their water losses, replacing the exact amount
of water lost (about one cup every 15 minutes) while the
men were exercising. As a result, though they stayed on the
treadmill seven hours, the test subjects did not
experience a drastic rise in temperature nor did they reach
exhaustion. In fact, when asked how they felt, they replied
that they could go as long as the doctor wanted them to!
“But I Don’t Feel Thirsty!”
Several conclusions based on the benefits of water can be reached from these experiments.
The first is that thirst isn’t necessarily a good indicator
of the body’s need for water. You must, in general, drink
more liquid than your thirst seems to call for. Second,
there’s a close relationship between water consumption and
fatigue. Third, drinking water appears to have a significant effect
upon the regulation of body temperature. And fourth, a more
active person is in greater need of water because of the
dehydrating effects of perspiration and rapid breathing.
You may wonder how to tell when you’re not getting enough
water. Well, there are a number of clinical signs to watch
for to see if you are drinking enough water. In America, for example, many adults and children are
afflicted with constipation. (It’s estimated that the
laxative business takes in some $200 million each year.)
This bowel dysfunction is often one of the first signs that
your water intake is inadequate. Because the rest of the
body has a higher priority for water, the intestinal tract
can be shortchanged, and the result is hard stools.
Unfortunately, few people heed this warning. Instead, folks
typically head for the drugstore to buy medication that
forces the rest of the system to return water from its own
limited supply to the intestinal tract. Of course, such a
“cure” is only temporary and actually compounds the
Yet another easily recognized symptom is dark yellow urine.
Our kidneys are equipped with millions of filtering units
to remove impurities and return the purified fluid to the
bloodstream. Since filtration is the organ’s first
priority, it will continue its job even if this means
producing a very highly concentrated urine. Over a long
period of time this can lead to the development of kidney
stones, urinary tract infections, and other bladder
“Dry mouth,” caused by decreased salivary gland function,
can also result from low water intake. On the other hand, a
person who drinks enough water seems not to need much
during meals, since his or her saliva glands are operating
When you realize that 60% to 70% of your total body weight
is made up of water, it’s not too difficult to understand
that nearly every function of the body happens in a more or
less liquid medium. In fact, without the amazing recycling
operation of the kidneys, you’d have to drink approximately
2,500 gallons (or 40,000 cupfuls) of water every day!
So you have a choice to make: You can get water by
recycling it, so to speak, which overrefines a limited
supply through the body’s filters, or you can consume more by
fresh water. If you take the first route, you risk actually
increasing the impurities in your body by not giving it an
adequate amount of diluting liquid. In fact, when a person
becomes dehydrated, he or she loses moisture from all of
the body’s cells. This in turn allows the by-products of
cell metabolism to build up and can slow the operation of,
or actually poison, the cells.
How Much Water Is Enough?
Generally speaking, the average person loses at least two
cups of water daily through the respiratory process.
Another two cups are emitted through perspiration, even
when no significant amount of physical work is carried on,
and the intestines and kidneys together lose a total of
about six cups during the day. So if you add it all
together, you come up with a total loss of ten cups (and
that’s not counting any excess lost through perspiration
Next, consider where the body gets its fluids . . . or
better still, where it should get them. Because
most food contains a large amount of water, you obtain
approximately 3-1/2 cups from what is eaten over the course
of a day. Interestingly, the body’s metabolism itself is
another source; as it makes and uses energy, one of its
daily byproducts is about half a cup of water.
Therefore, taking into account the approximately four cups
provided by food and metabolism, and the ten cups lost, the
average person needs to drink six to eight cups of water
daily just to keep functioning well. This requirement
changes, of course, according to the environment and the
type and quantity of food you eat. A person spending a hot
day mowing the lawn would obviously require more liquid
than someone relaxing in the shade, and a marathon runner
may drink as much as a cup of water for every 15 minutes of
The body cannot economize on water. Because temperature
control has a very high priority in the body’s operation,
the human system will dehydrate itself in the struggle to
keep cool. It’s been reported that such fluid losses can
actually reach two quarts a day in very hot climates, and
people have been known to lose as much as 15 quarts in 24
hours. In fact, perspiration continues to provide cooling
even when a person is dying of thirst in the desert!
Most of us will never experience such drastic fluid loss,
but the more rapidly you lose water, the more quickly you
need to replace it by drinking water if you’re to continue to function
without becoming fatigued.
Water intake is also related to the amount of food you eat.
Research has shown that an adult needs approximately one
cubic centimeter of water for each calorie consumed. So if
you consume 2,000 calories a day, you should drink 2,000 cc
(roughly 8-1/2 cups) of water.
If you don’t know how many calories you’re averaging daily,
you can estimate your need for liquid by dividing your
ideal weight by two, which will indicate the number of
ounces of water you should be drinking. To find out how
many cups you need, divide this quotient by eight.
For example, a fit person weighing 150 pounds would come up
with a calculation of 75 ounces, or 9 to 9-1/2 cups. If,
however, you weigh 160 pounds but should be 30
pounds lighter, you’d compute your water needs using that
“should be” figure.
Now that you know the benefits of drinking water and how much water you need, the next
question is when you should drink it. It’s usually
best to replace liquid as your body eliminates it. In other
words, there’s no point in getting up in the morning and
downing your eight cups all at once. Your kidneys would
soon eliminate this excess, and it wouldn’t be available
when you needed it later in the day. However, after a
night’s sleep, your body is somewhat dehydrated, so you
should start replacing water by drinking about two cups at
least 15 minutes before you have breakfast. Once you’ve had
your morning meal, wait a couple of hours to make sure your
food has left your stomach, and then have another two cups.
Drink two or three more throughout the afternoon, and have
one or two after supper. This adds up to a total of seven
or more cups of water during the course of your day.
Two things are likely to happen if you follow this regimen.
First, your thirst will be quenched. Second, not only will
you replace the fluids your body needs, but you’ll do so
with a liquid that may be more healthful than that which
you normally imbibe.
Bad Health Habits
Let’s take a look at some of America’s most popular
beverages. The first is coffee, which eight out of ten
adults consume at an average of 3-1/2 cups a day. That may
not sound like a lot, but it accounts for about 76% of the
nearly 34 million pounds of caffeine Americans consume
annually, and that drug has an interesting effect on the
body. Obviously, it acts as a stimulant. It causes the
adrenal glands above the kidneys to pour out two very
powerful chemicals: epinephrine and norepinephrine. Those,
in turn, cause a rise in blood pressure, constricting blood
vessels and giving one a feeling of increased mental acuity
and physical ability. However, this stimulation is
short-lived, so people who drink the brew habitually need a
coffee break in the midmorning and again in midafternoon to
keep them going throughout the day.
To avoid this, some people turn to decaffeinated coffee.
While it’s true that this beverage has had most of the
caffeine removed, that process doesn’t have any effect on
the caffeols that account for coffee’s flavor and aroma.
And, unfortunately, these fragrant oils irritate the
stomach lining, causing it to produce excess amounts of
hydrochloric acid, which can play a prominent role in the
development of stomach ulcers.
Yet another popular beverage is the carbonated soft drink,
which usually is composed of water, sugar, and artificial
colorings and flavorings. It has little or no nutritional
value and may even have stimulants (including caffeine) in
it. Yet Americans consume millions of gallons of
these liquids every week.
A third fluid many of us drink (to our detriment) is
alcohol. Most research indicates that if liquor is drunk in
moderation, it isn’t harmful. However, consider the recent
study done at the University of Florida’s College of
Medicine. Researchers gave one group of men, ranging in age
from their 20s to their mid-60s, plain orange juice before
bedtime, while another group drank a shot of vodka. When
the research staff followed the reactions of these men
throughout their sleeping hours, it was found that those
who drank alcohol had a significant increase in disturbed
breathing during the night (some even stopped breathing for
as long as ten seconds). The study also determined that
these normal, healthy, asymptomatic men experienced a
decrease in the oxygen-carrying ability of their blood.
Drinking fruit juices isn’t always the best alternative,
either. When the fibers and pulp, which play a vital role
in the digestion of fruit, are removed, the concentration
of natural sugars is increased. These are then absorbed
much more rapidly by the body. Since this can be a problem
for anyone with a prediabetic or diabetic condition, it’s
generally best to eat the whole fruit rather than drink its
The Ultimate Thirst Quencher
If you increase your water intake, you’ll probably decrease
your consumption of the other beverages that so often crowd
out this life-sustaining liquid. “But water just doesn’t
appeal to me at all,” you may complain. Well, remember that
appetites can be changed. Although it’s been said that it
takes 39 days of continual practice to develop a new habit,
the process may get easier as that period goes on, and
eventually you’ll reach a point where you actually
crave water. In fact, people who have become
accustomed to having their bodies well hydrated sometimes
find that they become thirsty much more frequently than
before. Just as their bodies once adjusted to being given
little water, they have adjusted to an increased
To help you attain the goal of proper water consumption,
make up a chart and tabulate the number of cups you drink
upon arising, throughout the morning, during the afternoon,
and in the evening. The following general rules may help
you achieve a healthful regimen.
First, don’t drink any water within 15 minutes before
eating. Second, give your stomach up to an hour and a half
after meals to digest most of your food undiluted by water;
mealtime is not the time to take in large amounts of
liquid. (Milk is the only beverage that serves as an
exception to this rule, since it becomes a semisolid in the
As you do your day’s work, put a cup of water in front of
you. When it’s emptied, fill it up again. You’ll be
astonished at how much you toss off without any difficulty.
Make it a habit to stop and refresh yourself every time you
pass a drinking fountain. Or try putting a pitcher
containing your estimated daily requirement of water in the
refrigerator, and periodically have a glass until it’s used
Initially, you may find yourself visiting the rest room
more frequently than you have in the past. There’s nothing
wrong with this. Don’t worry that you’ll wear out your
kidneys! With an adequate supply of water, they’ll actually
have a much easier time functioning normally.
Finally, try to be patient with yourself. It does take time
for the body to adapt. It also takes time to learn a new
habit. This one, however, is good for
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was adapted from a six part
seminar developed by Dr. Philip Collins, a health
consultant for Carolina Health Care. Please address any
inquiries to Carolina Health Care, Asheville, NC.