I undoubtedly have one of the brownest thumbs on the planet. If you want to kill a plant, give it to me as a gift.
In spite of this knowledge, we bought a pretty hanging plant to decorate the screen porch for a gathering at our home over the summer. True to form, I forgot to water it for weeks. When I saw it through the kitchen window, it was abundantly clear to me that it was severely deficient of water. So I loaded a 4-cup measuring vessel to capacity and poured it into the plant pot. Within seconds, at least half of the water I put in drained right back out through the bottom in a single steady stream. The thought actually occurred to me that it looked like the plant “peed it right back out.”
The human body is not too different from this. When you are chronically dehydrated, your body does not really know how to use water that is dumped into it. I have spoken to so many people who are hesitant to drink more water because they are concerned about running to the bathroom all the time — it’s inconvenient. But the resultant water avoidance from “potty fear” only compounds the problem because this amounts to less water available for the body to use, which puts your system in conservation mode; in other words, it gets used to functioning with less water and any excess water gets wasted. That is: you “pee it right back out.” And the cycle continues.
Every single cell in our bodies — each and every building block of our biological makeup — is filled with water. On top of this, the non-cellular fluids that carry nutrients from scalp to toenail: cerebrospinal fluid and blood plasma are composed of 99% and 93% water respectively; the rest is a specific blend of proteins and electrolytes whose concentrations must stay in a specific range in order to do their jobs of physiologic function. Concentration is as much a function of the solute (in this case, H2O) and the solvent (electrolytes such as sodium for example). The body actually HAS to maintain a very narrowly balanced saline (water-salt) balance in order to survive. When this or other solute:solvent ratios are thrown out of whack, the body will kick all sorts of emergency survival mechanisms into gear.
Do you really want to constantly live your life in the survival zone? Or do you want to thrive?
In any remotely healthy, functional body, excess water is managed by urination which in most adults is controllable. It is inconvenient, but manageable, and relatively temporary.
After pouring a cup of water into the plant 2-3 times a day for a few days it returned from death’s door after which a larger load of water could be poured in at once without immediate rejection from the soil.
To give a candid story, the plant thrived for a few more days until I forgot to water it again for weeks on end and I gave up on it. But a major reason for that — again being perfectly frank — was that I found myself in a place where I needed to focus on managing my own health. I was running out of oxygen and the people who depend on me were bearing the consequences, too (see “Oxygen”, an early post in this blog). The last several weeks have been, for lack of a better description, an ‘extreme’ push to achieve balance, to “heal the healer.” While I have a long way to go and, like us all, am really on a constant lifelong journey, I am already a better wife, mother, and physician now than I was 2 months ago. But in high achievers with high responsibilities (or really, any of us — especially parents or caregivers of any age) there is no such thing as “coasting through life.” Balance is a daily effort, requiring daily decisions to do what is right, which is not always what is comfortable.
A very simple, basic example of this is balancing your body’s hydration. Water intake of “8 glasses of water a day” (64 ounces) is a silly cop-out in my opinion. I am barely 5′ tall and weigh 115lb, pretty universally the smallest person in the room; 64 ounces is an optimal water target for me and is indeed my daily goal. The American body habitus requires way more than this because the average American body has more mass, meaning more and/or larger cells, requiring more solute to achieve balance. My advice is to take your body weight in pounds and divide it by 3: this is the MINIMIM number of ounces of water you should drink every 24 hours. OPTIMUM hydration would be the number of ounces you get when dividing your body weight in pounds by 2. Yes. Half of your weight –> that many ounces of water. HOWEVER, this “optimum” goal does also assume optimal activity and the fluid losses that can occur in a high intensity workout for example (through sweat and respiration). So if you are on the heavier side, at least get to the minimum every day. Buy a flask to keep with you all day. Make note of how many ounces are in the flask. Take sips as often as you can think of it. Make a goal of drinking enough flasks to achieve your target quantity (easier than counting 80-100 ounces). At least in the beginning, keep track (keep a log). If you are not in the habit of drinking this much water, don’t push for the full amount on the first day. Just do more than the day before. Then a little more the next day. Then a little more bit by bit until you reach target.
[There are few/rare exceptions to whom I would not give the above advice which includes the very elderly or individuals with heart or liver conditions for example. If you have any questions about it, you would be wise to discuss it with your physician first.]
We are biologic organisms, not machines. Those cells that require water to work include brain cells, muscle cells, cells that line your digestive tract, skin cells, etc., etc. If any of these body functions don’t feel like they are working well, chances are good that they don’t need to be pumped with chemicals (in the form of prescription medications) in an effort to flip a switch and “fix” the problem. They may just need to be plumped up from a shriveled state. Just remember that pouring in water by the gallon to make up for years of relative dehydration WILL NOT WORK. Your body is far more beautiful and intricate than any flowering plant. Isn’t it worth taking the time and effort to water it properly?
After literally years of gradual work since writing this post, if I — again at less than 5′ tall and ~120lb — drink less than 90 ounces of water in a day, I feel it. Honestly, fatigue sets in before thirst. If I take note that I’m behind in water and start drinking up, after about 6-8 hours I begin feeling “normal” again.
More than 2/3 of the earth’s mass is made up of water. Pretty close to that proportion of water makes up your human body. Drinking ample quantities of fresh, clean water should NOT be an afterthought. Rather, it indeed is life essential.
–Mary A Medeiros MD MPH