Everyone knows the old adage is true, right? “Drink 8, 8 ounce glasses of water a day!” You’ve heard it from your doctor, your nutritionist, your mom, the governor of all your health decisions (obviously none other than the Great and Powerful Oz!), every health book you’ve ever read, and of course, plenty of info-graphics going viral on Facebook, so, it must be true.
Because your body is 60% water, of course! (Or, was it 80%? Who cares! You’re basically nothing but water.) Your brain is made out of water! Water is the source of life! You need to drink more water to get rid of toxins! You need to drink more water to get pretty skin! You need to drink water to lose weight! If you think you’re hungry, you’re really actually thirsty! By the time you get thirsty, you’re already dehydrated! Coffee makes you dehydrated! Taking a shower makes you dehydrated! Breathing makes you dehydrated! If you don’t have clear pee, you’re about to die!!!
DRINK WATER ALL DAY LONG ALL OF THE TIME!!! BECAUSE WATER!!!
If this ain’t your first rodeo, and you’ve read this blog before (which isn’t exactly keen on many a mainstream health doctrinal standard), I bet you might be able to venture a guess as to what I’m about to say next.
Basically everything you’ve ever been taught about how much water you should be drinking is a big load of crap.
(Yup. You called it.)
Why You Should NOT Be Drinking 8 Glasses of Water a Day
My top 8 reasons why drinking all those glasses—instead of drinking according to your own body’s needs—is a bad idea.
1.) You’re blindly following standardized health advice instead of listening to your own body.
I find it interesting that in spite of huge, gaping variations in the span of health and nutrition recommendations—such as the polar opposite advice given by mainstream medicine (saturated fat will kill you, but polyunsaturated fats are “heart-healthy” etc.) to all the varying sects of alternative medicine and nutrition (eat all the saturated fat you possibly can, but polyunsaturated fats will kill you, etc.), one constant has remained throughout ALL angles of health and nutrition advice, even in our real-food realm: “Drink more water!”
What’s weird is that the whole, “All things in moderation,” thing is fairly universal as well. Yet, that’s not supposed to apply to water, according to everyone’s standards. The more water, the better! Drinking water has become somewhat of a health virtue—kind of like exercise. There’s a lot of pressure out there to do it, and do it a lot more than you naturally would want to.
Therein lies one of the biggest problems with the water recommendations of today—the audacious contention that your own body really doesn’t know what’s good for it. That even though it’s not asking for water, you should force down 8 more ounces and ignore the unpleasant biological feedback provided. Forget the uncomfortable urges to pee, the brain fog, and freezing cold hands and feet you’re experiencing—just listen to that health guru and make sure you’ve met his daily quota for your body’s water needs for the day.
Why do we all think it’s so acceptable to disrespect our own bodies in this way? That’s really what it is—complete and total ignorance of the biological signals your body is ingrained with to regulate itself. You don’t have to calculate out how much air you’re going to breathe in each day, or how many times you should blink, or the number of times you will visit the bathroom. Your body does all the thinking for you, and tells you to breathe, blink, or poop according to its needs. And generally, you react to each respectively without giving it a second thought.
But, should you drink water to quench your thirst, and then wait til the next time you feel thirsty to do it again? Nah. Just drink it all day long, regardless of what your body says.
Think about this, the next time you reach for that water bottle, or go to chug down the last half of the glass you just poured. Are you drinking that because you’re thirsty, and your body is telling you it needs water? Or are you drinking it because it’s “healthy?”
Most of the time, when people are drinking to the point of overhydration, their real answer is the latter.
Worse yet is when people are drinking to satisfy other physical needs their bodies are signaling—hunger especially. How many times have you heard this one—“When you feel hungry, try water first! Sometimes you think you’re hungry, but you’re really just thirsty!”
Wow. I’m pretty sure my two-year-old niece has been able to tell the difference between hunger and thirst since before she could talk. It isn’t exactly difficult. I can promise you, you haven’t forgotten how to do this yourself. The kind of disordered thinking that’s behind the message of drinking to satisfy hunger is born of other messed-up behavior and cultural attitudes about health, diet, and body image. Guaranteed. Why else would you ever want to not feed your body when its asking for it? Gotta perpetuate that calorie fear, of course!
Hunger and thirst cues are instinctive. Listen to them, and respond appropriately. Don’t torture yourself via waterboarding your gullet every hour of the day.
2.) You’re already getting water in your food.
Even if you were supposed to be drinking 64 ounces of water every day, you’d be getting a significant portion of that simply by eating food. That’s because, unless you’re an astronaut, almost all of the food you eat contains water.
Think about it—what happens when you combine powdered milk and water? You get (nasty tasting) milk. Powdered eggs and water? You get (a really horrible excuse for) eggs. And how did they make the powdered stuff? They took the water out of it.
There’s lots of water in fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy—you name it. Grains and nuts have a very low water content, but you’re usually eating them with other foods that contain water. Like, oats—they’re bone-dry, but you cook them in water and add butter and cream (unless you’re crazy or something). Bread—you start with waterless flour, but add all kinds of moisture in other ingredients. And straight-up fats don’t really contain water, but again, you’re not going to be consuming them without other foods. Unless you literally eat your butter by the spoonful, which, even I’m not weird enough to do.
Point is, you get water just about every time you eat. And no one seems to want to count this.
And even more strangely, many people don’t even want to count beverages that aren’t water, as going toward your arbitrary allotment of daily water consumption.
K. Seriously? If you eat a spoonful of instant coffee powder, and drink a glass of water—you did not just consume a different thing than coffee. The powder doesn’t magically “cancel out” the water. Same thing goes with juice, milk, tea, soda—and healthy crunchy hippie drinks like kombucha, kvass, kefir, and all that. If you’re drinking something, there’s a lot of water in it. That’s just kind of the way that goes. If you’re eating watery foods and drinking those things on top of drinking a bunch of water, you could very easily be overdoing it on the H2O.
3.) You’re missing out on nutrient-dense beverages
And speaking of all the things you could be drinking which are not plain water, but very much contain significant amounts of it—why not drink those things instead?
When you’re drinking water, all you’re getting is water. But if you’re drinking fresh, raw milk, jam-packed with critical nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K, you’re not just getting hydration, you’re getting nutrition.
Or how about one of those weird fermented drinks— like kefir, kombucha, or kvass? Or homemade bone broth? Beneficial probiotics, vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients—all things you’re missing out on if you’re meeting your water needs with water only.
The Weston A. Price Foundation actually advises against drinking too much plain water for this reason. Sally Fallon says of lacto-fermented beverages, “Both soft drinks and alcoholic beverages—and even plain water—are poor substitutes for these health-promoting beverages. Taken with meals they promote thorough and easy digestion of food; taken after physical labor they give a lift by replacing lost mineral ions in a way that renews rather than depletes the body’s reserves.” (source)
4.) You’re throwing off your electrolyte balance
Sally was right about those minerals, by the way—they’re important. Specifically, the balance between phosphorous and sodium.
Inside your cells, a balance leaning toward the phosphorous side is preferable. But outside your cells—in your extracellular (sometimes called intersitial) fluid, is where you want the scale to tip toward sodium.
Healthy, normal extracellular fluid likes to stay at what is called an isotonic solution—that means, it has about 9 grams of salt per liter of water. If you’re very dehydrated, and require an IV of fluids at the hospital, they aren’t pumping you full of straight water—it could kill you if they did that. They’re giving you an isotonic solution that provide hydration while maintaining a healthy electrolyte balance, sodium being of particular importance for those extracellular fluids.
Maybe you’ve heard the advice out there that says if you’re properly hydrated, your urine should be near-colorless. And that if it’s yellow, you’re “dehydrated.”
Do you have a pet? A dog, cat, or a horse will do. If you do—next time you see your vet, ask him or her what they would think if you told them that Fluffy’s pee is always completely clear or near-colorless.
I can guarantee you your vet wouldn’t be thrilled.
That’s because the specific gravity of urine is something that the field of veterinary medicine pays attention to (as do most responsible physicians). It’s a determinant in proper levels of both hydration and electrolyte balance—the number that determines the concentration of dissolved particles in the urine. If it’s too low, that indicates hyponatremia, or low salt levels in the blood. That’s bad. It causes the fluid outside of the cells to shift inside the cells through osmosis, causing them to swell. The swollen cells cause increased intracranial pressure in the brain, which leads to some of the first unpleasant symptoms of water intoxication (overhydration, see more on that below), such as headaches, drowsiness, irritability, and other changes in behavior. Hyponatremia is associated with bone fracture in the elderly, increased incidence of myocardial infarction, and more serious issues. If you become extremely hyponatremic, you die—like this guy did.
Drinking water all day long to the point that you’re peeing clear urine is a great way to get yourself into a hyponatremic state.
5.) Overhydration sucks
Like with many systems of the body, hydration requirements can be met in varying degrees, including reaching a point where the nutrient is no longer beneficial. The extracellular fluids can be optimally-concentrated, sub-optimally concentrated, or overly concentrated. You can think of this in terms of hydration—yes, you can be dehydrated. You can be optimally-hydrated. And you can most definitely be over-hydrated.
Here’s another little pearl of mainstream wisdom I’m sure you’ve head before to justify drinking water all the time: “By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.”
That’s like saying, “Once you feel hungry, your body already needs food.” Duh. Having a need for food or water is not a problem you need to prevent—it’s a normal part of being alive. Just listen to the signals your body gives you—feed when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired. A huge key to health that most people seem to miss these days.
What’s actually much more common—especially with the health-conscious crowd (which would be almost everyone reading this)—than dehydration is overhydration. People are so paranoid about becoming dehydrated, yet almost no one is even considering the possibility that the pendulum could swing too far to the other side with this. It can, and it does, and it’s dangerous. I would even go so far as to say that it’s more dangerous than dehydration, because it’s not as easily detectable. Dehydration is far easier to recognize. But most don’t really know what to look for with water intoxication, nor do they correlate the symptoms with the right problem so it can be addressed.
How do you know when you’re overly-hydrated? Here’s a list of common symptoms of water intoxication:
- Cold extremities (hands, feet, and/or nose)
- Low body temperature
- Having to urinate frequently
- Peeing in the middle of the night
- Muscle spasms, twitching
- Brain fog/decreased mental clarity
- Impaired emotion regulation/irritability
- Insomnia and poor sleep quality
- Dry mouth (ironically. Usually only in more severe cases)
What’s happening when you become overhydrated, is that extracellular fluid is becoming too dilute. That signals a stress response in the body, meaning that hormones which are designed to deal with acute and immediate stressors are being activated continunously, and will continue to be activated, the more a person is in a stressed and hypometabolic state. And the more the person continues to perpetuate the problem by drinking more and more water. Not good.
6.) Too much water inhibits digestion
To properly digest your food, you need appropriate levels of bile salts, hydrochloric acid, and other components of gastric acid. You also need a high-functioning metabolism. Drinking too much water can crash all of those things and cause digestion to suffer.
In a way, the time that you’re eating a plate of food is probably the best to be drinking straight water, if you’re going to drink it. That’s because the straight water is no longer just that—it becomes water mixed with food in your belly. But on the other hand, it’s possible to overdo it and negate all the metabolism-stoking benefits of the food you’re eating, if you’re washing down your meal with a half gallon of water.
However, that doesn’t mean that you should stop listening to your body while you’re eating, just cause you’re worried about flushing out all your gastric juices. Eating the right kinds of foods to support metabolic health can make you quite thirsty—and that’s okay. Drinking to satisfy that thirst is fine, but downing a liter of water a half-hour before a meal can drown your stomach in fluids to the point where it has difficulty maintaining proper levels of digestive assimilants.
7.) Too much water adversely affects blood sugar.
Just like with salt and electrolytes, water flushes sugar out of the system. So if you’re hypoglycemic, with too little sugar in the bloodstream, and are drinking a bunch of water, you’re flushing out what little precious blood sugar you’ve got.
If you’re not hypoglycemic, and instead have a tendency to hyperglycemia, or blood sugar levels that are too high, guzzling water isn’t the answer. Blood sugar stability is very closely correlated with metabolic rate—and that’s because the body’s metabolic rate affects how well your liver regulates glucose input and output, stored carbohydrates in the liver, fatty acids in your bloodstream, insulin sensitivity and more. These are all factors in glucose metabolism, which governs your blood sugar levels. When your extracellular fluids are concentrated appropriately—and not diluted with water all day long— it allows that metabolic system to do its job, which includes clearing sugar from the bloodstream and sending it into the cells, so that it can be used as fuel, or to be stored as glycogen.
What it all comes down to, is this next reason not to drink 8 glasses of water a day—by far the most important one:
8.) You’re killing your metabolism
The bottom line on overhydration is that it diminishes optimal performance of your body’s systems, instead of improving them. And that’s because overhydration inhibits metabolism. How important is your metabolism?
Well, considering it supports the life of your body down to the cellular level and impacts every single physiological system within it, I’d say it’s pretty key.
When your fluids are filled with too much water, your cells become too flooded to produce energy the way they’re supposed to. Electrolytes and glucose are the cells’ source of energy—kind of like little batteries for your mitochondria. So when this happens, your cellular metabolism—that process of taking in fuel and producing energy—is shot.
This triggers a stress response, with your body overproducing hormones like adrenaline, and just generally causing your body to freak out on the inside, without you even realizing it. Because your cells aren’t getting enough of what they need to produce energy, your body will try to conserve as much energy as it can. One of the first things your body will do to accomplish that is reduce circulation, because it wants to keep blood flow closer to vital organs—instead of your hands and feet, which is why they get cold. So, feeling cold hands and feet is a good sign that your stress response is being activated, and a damaging cascade of stress hormones has begun to flow. This is your body lowering its metabolism, just so its most basic functions can continue to work. Think of a low metabolism as being “thrifty” with your energy resources.
And when that happens chronically, such as is the case with people who have a Nalgene permanently cemented to their hand, it becomes even more difficult for for cells to hold onto the salts and sugar they need to work. It gets increasingly easier to become water intoxicated—with hyponatremia, low specific gravity of urine, and so forth—the more your metabolism continues to decline.
Drinking too much water, day in and day out, perpetuates this cycle and leads to all the problems associated with a lowered metabolism. And it can be so easily prevented if you just drink according to your body’s needs!
How much water should you drink?
Not “half your body weight in ounces.”
Not “8, 8 ounce glasses per day.”
Not any standardized, sweeping generalization of a blanket statement that’s not designed for your own specific needs which are far too variable for anyone to be giving you an exact prescription to follow.
But I do have an answer to the question. Are you ready for this? My totally radical, revolutionary, earth-shattering advice on the amount of water you should be drinking?
Drink when you’re thirsty. The end.
No, seriously. You don’t have to drink water for any other reason than that. And if you do, you could run into some significant problems. Try to become more aware of how much fluid you’re taking in, in proportion to the amount of energy (calories) you consume. If you throw that balance off, your metabolism is bound to suffer.
Generally, what you want to look for to make sure you’re not overdoing it, is that your urine has a nice yellow color to it, and that you only have to urinate once every few hours. 4-6 times per day is probably ideal, while being able to sleep through the night without having to go.
Have you been totally screwing it up thus far and drinking to the point of overhydration? Feel like you need a little more guidance to figure out how to do this right and drink based off of your body’s signals and feedback? I can’t recommend the book, Eat for Heat, highly enough. My friend Matt Stone is kind of a crazy guy, and his style is a bit of an acquired taste, but he’s one of the smartest dudes out there when it comes to this kind of stuff.
Check out Eat for Heat, the best guide I can recommend for altering your dietary (and drinking) habits to improve your metabolism and overall health, here: