Even though we’re constantly reminded of the benefits of staying hydrated, drinking enough water can be a tricky business. The same is true even after you’ve become one with your water bottle—once it feels like an appendage, it can be difficult to put it down. After a while, you may start to wonder if you’re hydrating properly or going overboard.
“Drinking too much water can result in a condition called hyponatremia, which is a dangerous drop in blood sodium levels,” says Kristin Koskinen, RDN, registered dietitian in Richland, Washington. (Sodium is an important electrolyte that acts as the body’s traffic guard, regulating where water is being distributed throughout the body and how much is being sent to the bladder.) “Though it’s relatively uncommon to attain water intoxication, it can happen if you outdrink what your body can excrete,” says Koskinen.
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Here are the earliest symptoms to look out for, and how to hydrate like a pro.
The Subtle Signs of Over-Hydrating
Monitoring the color of your pee—and how often you run to the throne—are the earliest ways your body alerts you of your hydration status, says Koskinen. Urine color typically ranges from pale yellow to tea-colored, thanks to a combination of the pigment urochrome and the amount of water you drink, according to the Mayo Clinic. If your pee is clear more often than not, that’s a sign that you’re either drinking too much water in too short a timespan and need to spread out your efforts, or you’re taking in too many fluids overall.
This is especially the case if you notice that you’re going to bathroom more than usual. “On average, people urinate 6-8 times a day, though going up to 10 times a day is within the realm of normal for the water-drinking high-achieves,” says Koskinen. (Or for those who regularly take in caffeine or alcohol.) If your job or day-to-day activities are compromised by the uptick in bathroom trips (say, going every couple of hours or more) and your pee is clear, then you may want to consider cutting back in the liquids department.
When slightly decreased, low sodium levels may not cause noticeable symptoms, says Suzanne Dixon, RD, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Portland, Oregon. But when they continue to drop due to drinking more than your body is capable of excreting, it can cause symptoms like bloating, headache, brain fog, and nausea. “The kidneys have limitations of how much water they can excrete at a time, which is a maximum of 800-1,000 millileters per hour,” says Koskinen. “Anything that exceeds that amount essentially waterlogs the body.” Enter bloating.
When the body can’t rid itself of excess water, cells swell to accommodate it—and because the brain is enclosed in the skull, it leaves almost no room for any expansion, says Koskinen, which can cause headaches and brain fog. You may also feel nauseous if your body’s water-to-sodium ratio is out of whack—when there’s too much water in the bloodstream, your body might try to throw up the excess water in order to find balance again, says New York-based registered dietitian Jackie Arnett Elnahar, RD.
Currently, there isn’t solid data on exactly what level of sodium in the blood causes these early symptoms—it probably varies from person to person, Dixon says. Fortunately, for the average person, drinking too much water usually leads to nothing more than an increase in bathroom breaks. But if you do find that you experience the above symptoms on occasion and want to know if your hydration habits are the culprit, revamping your relationship with water can help you solve the mystery.
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How to Find Your Hydration Sweet Spot
The best place to start is to estimate how much water your body needs on average. “I recommend starting with a half-ounce of water per pound of body weight,” says Koskinen. “Because muscle carries more water than fat, leaner people may stick closer to this number and those with more body fat may ratchet down, while people who are overweight or obese may want to use their ideal body weight in this calculation.”
Many of us guzzle a set number of glasses per day to reach our H20 goals, which is a good way to get past your perma-parched ways in the beginning—but because hydration levels fluctuate day-to-day based on the weather, how hydrating your diet is, how active you are, and other bevvies you sip along the way, the amount of water you drink to fill in the blanks should be adjusted accordingly so as to not overdo it.
One of the easiest ways to fine-tune your hydration habits is to stop looking at it as a water-centric practice, and instead shift your focus to include fluids as a whole. “Fluid doesn’t just come from water, but from any beverage you drink, as well as many foods,” says Koskinen. (Roughly 20 percent of daily fluid intake usually comes from food, and the rest from drinks, according to the Mayo Clinic.) If soups, fruits and veggies, and smoothies are a regular part of your diet, then you might not need to replenish as often—the same goes for foods that melt at room temperature or are held in a gel matrix (think: Jell-O or pudding), she adds. Meanwhile, on days when you’re a sucker for anything salty (ramen, frozen dinners, fast foods, chips), an increased water intake may be required so the body can maintain equilibrium.
Nearly any beverage can count toward meeting your daily fluid needs—including coffee. “If a person is a habitual caffeine consumer, their body adapts, and the coffee stops acting like a diuretic,” says Dixon. “However, if you’re not a regular caffeine drinker, then these fluids are considered dehydrating and shouldn’t be counted toward your daily fluid intake.” The drinks that never contribute to your hydration quota? Alcohol and energy drinks, says Dixon. Alcohol causes your body to lose more fluid than you get from the beverage itself, while heavily caffeinated energy drinks may have so much caffeine in them that they also act as a diuretic.
During hot or humid weather, your body’s need for water may increase—the same is true if you live in dry climates, whether it’s hot or cold, says Koskinen. And if you’re super-active or athletic, weighing yourself before and after long, intense workouts (sans clothes) can help you replace fluid losses as accurately as possible: “The difference between the two weights give you a good approximation of what your fluid losses were,” says Koskinen. For every pound you lost over the course of the workout, drink around two cups of water (or a sports beverage) to replenish, and try to do so over the next several hours following the workout.
The Secret to Hydrating as You Go
Though calculating your fluid needs isn’t an exact science, your body will tell you straight-up whether or not you need to hydrate. Your pee should be a pale yellow color—if it’s darker, hit the water cooler, and if it’s lighter, hit the brakes. “During normal daily activity, drinking one or two cups over the course of an hour should keep you hydrated without overtaxing the kidneys,” says Koskinen. The decrease in bathroom trips is just an added bonus.
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