Perhaps some of you are tired of being asked whether you drink enough water. In this issue, I will discuss the problem of drinking too much water and the reasons why drinking LESS water may solve many chronic health problems, including headaches, migraines, dizziness, fatigue, indigestion, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, insomnia, urinary problems, and joint pain.
When I began studying acupuncture and Oriental medicine in Japan more than 25 years ago, teachers and practitioners more often than not emphasized the importance of limiting fluid consumption. This teaching is primarily based on Kampo (Japanese traditional medicine, evolved from classical Chinese medicine), according to which retained excess water in the body is called suitai (stagnation of body fluids). Suitai is one of the most commonly seen Kampo disease patterns in modern society.
In North America, however, health professionals overwhelmingly recommend that their patients drink more water. It is hard to find a health magazine that does not mention, in almost every issue, the importance of drinking water. As a result, many people make a conscious effort to drink larger quantities of water and drink it more frequently, even when they are not thirsty.
The so-called “waterholism” trend is now spreading to the East. In recent years, a growing number of Japanese people have started to carry colorful water bottles everywhere they go. This phenomenon has caused serious concern for some Japanese doctors such as Yumi Ishihara, M.D., Ph.D., an internal medicine specialist in hematology. In his recent book, The Danger of Excessive Intake of Fluids: Stop Forcing Yourself to Drink Water (title translated from the Japanese, Kousaido, 2008), he warns about the potential negative impact of excessive water intake on a wide range of illnesses, including cardiovascular, immunological, reproductive, and psychological conditions.
Absorption of new fluid begins with the elimination of fluid
Many water advocates suggest that water has a detoxifying effect-in other words, that water washes toxins from the body and purifies the blood. This idea sounds nice and clean, but unfortunately it is simplistic and, in part, misleading.
I will explain my reasoning with a simple analogy. If you drink a generous amount of water, the urine will eventually become almost colorless. This phenomenon may make you feel “clean,” but it does not necessarily mean you have eliminated all the toxins from your body. The body works like a sponge. If a sponge is soaked with dirty liquid, don’t you squeeze out the old water first before soaking it in clean water? How about gardening? Water is most effectively absorbed by trees and plants when the soil has almost dried out from a previous watering or rainfall. Overly frequent watering can rot the root system and end up killing a plant (a phenomenon known as wet feet). Likewise, in order to absorb new fluid into our cells, the excess water must be expelled first.
Oxygen (O2) is another example. Just as with water, we cannot live without oxygen. However, rigorous repetitive inhalation can cause the condition called hyperventilation. The best way to maximize respiratory efficiency is actually not to pay any attention to inhaling oxygen. Instead, the focus should be placed on exhalation-breathing air (CO2) out completely to empty the lungs. Fresh oxygen then fills the lungs naturally.
In the same way, it is important to eliminate excess fluid from the body first in order to allow it efficiently to absorb new fluid into the cells. Excessive water consumption can cause electrolyte imbalance and may have serious consequences. A widely known example is the 2007 death of a 28-year-old California woman due to water intoxication shortly after she participated in a “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest, which involved drinking large quantities of water without urinating.
How to find out if you are retaining excess water
Common signs and symptoms of retained fluid include swollen eyelids, migraines, fatigue, watery stools, nausea, edema in extremities, and worsening of pain or other symptoms on rainy days. When observing your tongue, it may appear swollen and teeth marks may appear on the sides of the tongue. It is also useful to pay attention to the color of your urine. If it is clear or a very faint yellow, it is unlikely that you are dehydrated. And remember: symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, and muscle cramping commonly occur in both dehydration and water intoxication.
At The Pacific Wellness Institute, we utilize the research-quality Bio Impedance Analyzer. Our system not only provides an estimate of the body’s fat and muscle content, it also provides an estimate of intra-cellular and extra-cellular fluid volume. Patients who are prone to retaining unneeded fluid in their bodies almost always have a higher percentage of extra-cellular fluid. In addition, some patients are asked to fill out the “Kampo Constitutional Evaluation Questionnaire” (Tanaka, T. H www.kampo.ca/online-forms.shtml), which contains a series of questions about the characteristics of an individual’s thirst, urine, and sweat to help determine each patient’s unique constitutional patterns.
How many glasses a day should I drink?
Dogs and cats show zero interest in the water dish when they do not feel thirsty. Humans are a unique species in that we drink water even when not thirsty. You may have heard the claim made that “by the time you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated.” In my opinion, this is true only in special circumstances, such as being in direct sun or undergoing rigorous physical activity for an extended period of time.* Otherwise, I suggest that most people trust their senses and drink water only according to their desire.** If the desire to drink is low, it could actually be a sign of fluid retention in the body, according to the Kampo understanding of water metabolism, suitai.
Keep in mind that most of us have fewer occasions for exertion-induced sweat than in previous eras. Meanwhile, bottles of fresh water and other beverages are conveniently available, thanks to modern sanitation infrastructure developments and household comforts such as air conditioning and refrigerators. As a result, fluid retention is extremely common in civilized urban society. An appropriate treatment approach focuses on the elimination of retained fluid in the body by using Kampo medicine modalities such as acupuncture, herbs, and food therapy.
Water is essential to our health. We cannot live more than a few days without water. Inadequate fluid intake and dehydration can indeed cause or aggravate many health conditions. At the same time, I see a growing number of cases of health conditions that appear to be caused or aggravated by excessive water intake. The oft-repeated guideline “eight glasses of water a day” should not be applied uniformly. It is important to remember that some people have decreased fluid processing abilities due to constitutional weakness, causing them to produce inadequate amounts of urine. Thus, water intake requirements vary from individual to individual, depending not only on an individual’s activity level, body size, environment, diet, and other beverage intake, but also on his or her constitutional ability to process and eliminate water as urine and sweat.
|* However, a common circumstance that can lead to acute water intoxication is simply the excessive intake of plain water during physical activity in hot weather.** People with a history of blood clotting, kidney disease, and certain other health conditions require a particular water intake level as recommended by their doctor.|