margie sanchez, contributing science writer
Have you ever watched a movie, say a classic Western, in which one or more of the characters are stranded in a desert without drinking water, no help in sight, and no source of water anywhere? At first, the unfortunate ones stumble along the bleak landscape as the blazing sun sears overhead. As the story continues, a tortured pace slows to a torturous crawl. Parched, cracked lips and burned skin become graphic signs of the characters’ imminent death, their voices panting in a barely audible whisper with their last breaths, “Water, water.” If the storyline includes the classic reprieve for the characters, they may reach an oasis, replete with shade trees or large bushes and, of course, a pond or stream of clear, clean, cool water.
Not soda. Not sweet tea. Not juice. Not even Gatorade. Just life-saving water. Or the parched victims may be rescued and inevitably be treated with sips of water. Not diet soda. Not a Frappuccino. Not a cold beer. But life-saving water. Humans used to automatically seek water to quench thirst, but in the last few decades, that has drastically changed. Our bodies need water to perform every function and pathway required for optimal health, yet many of us turn to other sources to quench our thirsts. Why? Great marketing placed soft drinks in the main stream of American consumerism a long time ago. Sales on soft drinks have dropped somewhat, but not because Americans are drinking water again to replenish our water needs. Instead, Americans have traded one bad habit for others. Now we stop at Starbuck’s for a cold Frappuccino. Or maybe we think that a sports drink is just the thing. Or how about an energy drink? Iced tea? Diet soda? Cold juice?
By the time we feel thirsty, our bodies are already experiencing dehydration. The logical course of action is to give our bodies what they’re asking for- water. The simple explanation for this immediate need for water is that our cells have entered a hypotonic state, which means that the concentration of water inside our cells is lower than concentration of water around the cells. Thus, water outside the cells will diffuse into the cells in an effort to create an isotonic state, equal water on the inside and the outside of cells. However, unless we consume more water to replenish the water outside our cells, our cells go into a hypertonic state where there’s more water inside the cells than outside. So our cells will give up water in an effort to create that equilibrium state of isotonicity. Now our cells need more water again, they’re hypotonic. This cycle repeats until equilibrium is achieved. The fastest way to achieve an isotonic state is to… you guessed it… drink water!!
Sometimes our kidneys will try to reclaim some water through a collecting duct via an ingenious little part called the loop of Henle. We can only make urine as concentrated as the loop of Henle can achieve it, less than seawater. (In fact, it’s far safer to drink nothing at all than to drink seawater.) There’s a descending part of the loop of Henle that’s permeable to water but impermeable to salts. If our body needs water, that descending section allows water to leave the kidney. A very efficient pathway activates to signal the body’s need for water, ultimately triggering thirst. In short, this is what happens:
1. The collecting duct is controlled by the hormone vasopressin
2. Vasopressin is released by the hypothalamus in the brain when blood osmolarity (concentration) is too high
3. Vasopressin triggers thirst
4. Vasopressin causes the collecting duct in the loop of Henle to become permeable to water
5. If blood osmolarity is too high, vasopressin is released to signal the brain to drink more water, and causes the collecting duct to become more permeable to water
Other factors, hormones, and compounds cause things like an increase in blood pressure which also signal the body’s need for water. Please note that the consumption of alcohol will result in throwing away lots of water in the urine. That is why consuming alcoholic beverages inevitably results in dehydration, unless more water is consumed to compensate for the loss. If not, severe hydration due to alcohol consumption will most likely result in the dreaded “hangover”. In other words, if you want to avoid or, at least, minimize a hangover, drink plenty of water while (and after) enjoying wine, beer, or Mojitos.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cold beer, or soda, juice, etc. once in a while. But once in a while means only once in a while. Beverages aren’t meant to replace our need for water, only act as an occasional indulgence, or supplement our required daily intake of water. Our bodies need about the equivalent of 8 eight ounce glasses of water per day. Some of that requirement can be met in the food and drinks we consume. However, please understand that some of the foods and drinks we consume require water to be processed, so they are using some of that water that our bodies need for routine metabolism. Naturally, some of the worst offenders are the foods and drinks that taste so good- anything sweet. Yeah, I know a lot of you go for sodas when you’re thirsty. I hear it often enough. “I’m thirsty. I need a soda.” I have to bite my tongue when I hear this. Especially here in San Antonio with its high rate of diabetes.
I’m not a water “Nazi”. I understand that sodas can be a hard habit to break. Colas and any drink with caffeine are addicting as well as sweet. Moreover, since the cola extract is naturally on the bitter side, a cola soda requires a lot of sugar to render the beverage palatable. That means your Pepsi or Coke is loaded with sucrose (table sugar), fructose, or a mixture of both. Look at the ingredients the next time you buy a bottle or can of cola. Then try to measure out, by the spoonful, how much sugar you just consumed. (Do an online search for a gram to teaspoon conversion for sugar.) Personally, I don’t care for colas, but love Dr. Pepper, especially the special Dublin Dr. Pepper available here in Texas. It’s just that I only drink a Dr. Pepper once in a while, maybe just a few times in a year, previously buying bottled lemonade, thinking that it’s better than drinking a soda. Then I checked the label, shocked to find that a bottle of lemonade has more sugar than a soda!
By the way, please don’t think you’re doing your body a big favor by replacing regular sodas with diet sodas. Diet sodas are even worse for at least two reasons. First, artificial sweeteners are just that- artificial. Our bodies do not recognize them as natural substances because they’re not. There are always inherent problems and challenges to our metabolism when we consume processed or artificial substances. (In the interest of brevity, I will not elaborate on the effects of artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose at this time.)
Second, consuming drinks or foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners creates a self-defeating situation if you are trying to form better habits. If you are really trying to lower your consumption of sweets, why continue to consume drinks and foods that TASTE sweet? Another concern is the signal to the brain when we consume something that tastes sweet. Our brain doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the taste of artificial sweet and natural sweet, so even if you’re drinking a diet soda instead of a regular one, chances are that the brain is going to signal the release of insulin in anticipation of taking excess glucose out of the blood. My opinion is that it’s preferable to occasionally drink a regular soda with real sugar than to drink diet sodas, unless you’re a diabetic. Even then, diet sodas can pose health problems. In any case, you should try to limit your intake of sodas, regular or diet.
Hey, you say, why not drink juice? It’s a natural drink since it comes from fruit. Oh yes, it is natural all right, naturally loaded with sugar! This means that your body is going to need water to process the juice in order to properly metabolize the sugar (fructose) in it. So, please avoid giving your children, especially babies, juice regularly, especially not to replace water. And if you do serve your children juice, dilute it with water, at least 50/50. If you do this when your children are young, they will already be accustomed to diluted juice before they grow up. My favorite way to drink juice is in a juice spritzer, juice and club soda over lots of ice. It’s like a soda made with juice but far more thirst quenching than a regular soda.
What about sports drinks? These drinks were initially created for endurance athletes, especially on hot days because they supply vital electrolytes lost through excessive sweating as well as glucose burned as calories. (They are also useful, especially diluted with water, during an illness with fever and/or vomiting.) Have you ever read the labels on sports drinks? They contain plenty of sugar and salt. Why would you want to drink sugar and salt if you’re thirsty? If you really think you “need” a sports drink, you can make one that’s much healthier than the ones you buy. It’s very simple and economical. Just use your favorite juice, dilute it with lots of water, add a little honey or maple syrup if desired, and add a little sea salt. If you don’t have juice, you can always add a little powdered drink mix for flavor. Using coIloidal minerals (a liquid mineral supplement) to make homemade sports drinks, one can omit the salt because the minerals already include sodium.
If one loses electrolytes through vomiting (or lots of sweat), use fresh squeezed orange juice because oranges are loaded with potassium, a major electrolyte that is depleted when we vomit. I also like to make my own nutrient enhanced beverage, especially when I have colloidal minerals. Again, I use juice (preferably fresh and/or organic unfiltered non-pasteurized) and dilute it with plenty of water, then add about a teaspoon of colloidal minerals to make at least a quart of my own nutrient enhanced water. Or simply skip the juice and just add the minerals and maybe a little honey or maple syrup if I know I may not eat for a while.
So what about energy drinks? Maybe they’re okay once in a while, especially if you’re pulling an “all-nighter”, like cramming for a difficult exam or to get that research paper finished on time, or that project your boss asked you to do at the last minute. But using an energy drink to routinely replace water for everyday use is not a good idea. First, energy drinks usually contain a lot of sugar. Second, they contain very high levels of stimulants. Do you really need to activate your flight or fight response? Because that’s exactly what your energy drink can do. Strong stimulants in large amounts behave as stressors, which then activate the adrenal glands, resulting in the activation of adrenergic substances like epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.
The release of these substances temporarily slows or stops things our bodies consider unnecessary for emergency situations. That means things like digestion are interrupted in favor of all the responses necessary to achieve a heightened state of awareness. This might sound like a good way to get a good workout, or to cram for a test, or finish that 20 page research paper. But the problem with the fight or flight response is that it creates the need to make more sugar, triggers the breakdown of proteins and fats, and inhibits cellular growth and the immune response. And that’s just some of the metabolic pathways activated by the fight or flight response. The overall strategy of the fight or flight response is to put many of our normal bodily functions on hold in order to deliver vital resources to our heart and skeletal muscles, and to increase our alertness. Then guess what?! Our bodies will require more water to make up for the deficits created by the fight or flight response. Check the label on energy drinks. If you really think you need one, try to find one that isn’t so high in sugar. Because guess what?
Sugar requires water to break bonds to make glucose available for use. And if you don’t have enough water… well, you already know what happens by now, right? If you really need a stimulant, a safer option is to drink coffee or tea. Both coffee and tea are nutritionally beneficial, as long as you don’t add lots of fat and sugar. The bottom line is… using energy drinks of any kind might be okay, once in a while. But use them sparingly, or not at all. And be careful about consuming too much coffee and tea in a short amount of time. They’re also stimulants and can activate that fight or flight response far longer than you’d like.
How about iced tea? Iced coffee? After all, tea and coffee contain antioxidants, don’t they? Yes, but how much sugar do you consume in your tea? How much sugar and fat are in that iced coffee? Or do you prefer artificial sweeteners? You already know where I’m going with this. Personally, I prefer unsweetened tea and coffee because I prefer to taste my tea or coffee, not sugar, fat, or other flavoring that obscures the taste of good coffee and tea. Things like lemon slices or fresh mint for tea are a welcome addition sometimes, but I usually drink plain tea and coffee to fully enjoy their flavor. Even then, I try to limit my consumption or I drink water afterwards because tea and coffee are diuretic. That means that either one causes the body the get rid of water through urine. That’s okay if I’m retaining water, but not so good if I’m NOT retaining water. Just to clarify, when I say tea is diuretic, I am referring to the tea plant, camellia sinensis. This is the plant that produces the leaves used for black, green, oolong, and white teas.
The “herbal” teas, also known as tisanes, are completely different. But I drink those plain too, without sweeteners. Okay, I think you see a pattern with me. I really, really don’t care for sweet drinks. I like my coffee and tea black, completely unsweetened. I don’t really care for sodas. If I make lemonade, I make it on the tart side, and I make it with honey, maple syrup or raw sugar. AND most important, I drink water, lots of it. These “predilections” weren’t always my personal preferences. They evolved over the years as I learned more about nutrition and as I learned to really listen to my body. If you want to cut down on sugar, just do it gradually. Before you know it, you’ll find you’ve lost much of your craving for sugar. You might even start shedding pounds. Oh yeah, I forgot about one more important thing regarding sugar. Some of the glucose in our bodies (like the sugars in sweet drinks) is excess glucose, so it’s used to make a fat called triacylglycerol. Then this converted glucose, now a fat, is stored in adipose tissue, namely, our fat cells. So, yes, sugar can make you fat! Really!
What did you conclude from this verbose diatribe? I hope I’ve convinced you to drink more water. If you’re thirsty, you need water. If you’re sick, you need water. If you’re sweating, you need water. If you have a fever, you need water. If you have diarrhea, you need water. If you’re constipated, you need water. If you want to lose weight, you need water. If you’re consuming alcohol, you need water. If you want healthy skin, nails, and hair, you need water. If you want to digest your food adequately, you need water. If you want to be healthy, YOU NEED WATER. Just water. Save the other drinks for an occasional treat. And if that occasional drink happens to be a Mojito, please let me know. That happens to be one of my favorite occasional treats. Or a bottle of Blue Moon. Or a St. Germaine cocktail. Did I mention I live in San Antonio?