Although it may not get top billing in terms of New Year’s resolutions or major fitness aspirations, “stay hydrated” should absolutely be atop everyone’s goal list.
According to Harvard School of Public Health, drinking fluids is crucial to maintaining every system in your body — since fluids carry nutrients to your cells, flush bacteria from your bladder, help digestive health and reduce muscle soreness — among many other functions.
Experts say the exact amount of water you need to drink every day can vary based on climate, activity level and even medication usage since some meds can cause urine loss, increasing the risk of dehydration. But despite the need to tweak consumption, it’s clear most people aren’t getting enough, studies have noted.
In part, that may be because thirst isn’t the best indicator of hydration — in fact, researchers have suggested that by the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
“Even the clothes you’re wearing can change your body temperature and increase hydration needs,” says Tiffany DeWitt, RD, a dietitian at healthcare company Abbott. “That’s why it’s important to be sensible and know your individual needs.”
How do you know when it’s time to drink up? Here are some signs it may be time to grab your water bottle:
1. SUGAR CRAVINGS
Dehydration activates both hunger and thirst centers in the brain, notes nutrition and health coach Joan Kent, PhD. That’s why you might think you’re hungry when you’re actually thirsty.
If that need for hydration comes after a workout, it’s likely you’ve depleted some of your glycogen, the carbohydrates stored in muscle. You tend to crave carbs, Kent says, and that often means quick-fix carbs in the form of sugary foods. Dehydration also interferes with serotonin levels, the “feel-good” hormone and that can trigger sugar cravings as well, Kent adds.
2. BAD BREATH
When you’re not drinking enough water or other quenching fluids, it’s harder for your salivary glands to stay efficient, says Dr. Harold Katz, DDS, founder of The California Breath Clinics. That could put your oral health at risk, because the drier your mouth becomes, the easier it is for bacteria to flourish. As it does, your breath can become off-putting, to say the least.
“Your salivary glands emit a constant stream of moisture into your mouth, which keeps your palate wet and minimizes bacterial growth on your tongue,” says Katz. With proper hydration, those glands can emit the enzymes and minerals that knock out nasty bacteria.
3. FATIGUE, MOOD AND POOR CONCENTRATION
Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory found even mild levels of dehydration can alter a person’s mood, energy level and mental function.
They had study participants do a series of cognitive tests that measured memory, learning ability, reasoning and concentration. Those who were dehydrated even slightly struggled with the tasks more than those who were properly hydrated. That dehydrated group also reported more fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
4. JOINT PAIN
Dehydration is often linked to muscle cramps and soreness, but it can also be a factor in joint problems, according to medical researcher, biochemist and chiropractor David Williams.
Your joints have a thick, gel-like liquid inside that supplies cushioning, lubrication and shock absorption. For that process to work properly, the joints must be getting adequate hydration, he says. This can be especially challenging if you consume a high amount of liquids that are actually diuretics (Think: coffee, black tea, soft drinks and alcohol) which draw liquid out of your system.
If you have joint pain, and drinking more water isn’t helping, Williams advises you keep going. “It’s like trying to water a plant when the surrounding soil has dried up,” he says. It can take time for the water to absorb enough into your system to make a difference, but you’ll likely feel the effects within a few weeks.
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5. DARK URINE
Of all the potential dehydration signs, this may be the easiest to spot, since all you have to do is glance down into the toilet or urinal. If you’re hydrated properly, urine should be pale and either clear or very light yellow. When it’s darker yellow or even slightly brownish, that’s an indication you don’t have enough fluids coursing through to properly flush the toxins from your system.
Also pay attention to how frequently you urinate, since peeing less often than usual can also be a sign you need to up your hydration intake.
Although water is the best beverage for hydration, you can also add more foods with electrolytes and complex carbs, which helps your body better absorb the fluids you drink, says DeWitt. Opt for foods like celery, broth-based soups, fruits and vegetables and Greek yogurt.
“When it comes to hydration, it’s critical to start out your day right,” she notes. “If you work out in the morning, it’s important to remember to hydrate the night before and when you first wake up; then stay hydrated throughout your workout and rehydrate when it’s over. The same applies to a regular day — staying hydrated throughout the day — with the right nutrients and the right liquids will help you feel replenished.”