In a post-apocalyptic world, it would be more precious than any other substance. In Africa, many rural women expend a huge amount of time and energy every day just to collect a few gallons of it. It makes up roughly three quarters of the earths surface and up to 80 per cent of every living thing. A few days without it and you would most certainly die. It has been called the weirdest chemical on earth and the most mysterious, and youre full of it.

Water, more than just H2O.

Even though water is so commonplace, scientists dont fully understand it. There are all sorts of rules that govern liquids but water refuses to obey most of them. Instead of contracting when it freezes, it expands; hot water freezes faster than cold; water takes a surprising amount of energy to heat despite having such a small molecule size and being thin you would think water would offer little resistance to force but the opposite applies.

The weirdness of water makes it the perfect fluid to have in the human body. Water molecules like to stick together (called hydrogen bonding) which is handy for us because it means that they can slip through the smallest of blood vessels, dragging their friends behind them. As its the nearest thing to a universal solvent, the water in blood can ferry nutrients and oxygen to our cells and take the garbage out of them, even against gravity.

Water is constantly moving in and out of cells, which means that life is primarily a water dance. Nothing happens in the human body without water. Its the most important nutrient, influencing hormones, nerve conduction, metabolism and the health of every cell whilst lubricating the joints and acting as a shock absorber for the brain.

The average adult loses about 10 cups of water every day just through urinating, sweating, respiration and elimination; more if its hot or they engage in exercise. As your body cant store water, it seems sensible to replenish supplies every day, throughout the day.

If you drink a lot of water, you can stop right here because I will be preaching to the choir. You already know that Its the real thing sorry coke, you just dont cut it. Fizzy drinks do not quench your thirst. What they do is fool your body by desensitizing your taste buds which become numb. Your body is temporarily satiated, but this wears off, leaving you thirsty again and reaching for another fizzy drink.

If you dont believe in water, read on.

A Question of Thirst

There is a raging debate over how much water you should you drink that yo-yos between the arbitrary 6-8 glasses a day rule and the drink when you are thirsty rule. Neither is helpful.

People dont generally drink tea, coffee, wine or soda when they are thirsty, they drink them for all sorts of other reasons habit, taste, boredom, to be social, for the caffeine, because its tea time etc. We humans like to sip on something. Water, however, is the one that is constantly singled out to drink only when you are thirsty. Why cant you drink water just because? Water is the only liquid essential to health and you will never die from a lack of lattes, cabernet sauvignon or coke.

If water was the only beverage around, we would all probably be acutely sensitive and responsive to the constant need for it. Unfortunately, there are so many other liquids in competition with water that drinking it has to be a deliberate act until your body becomes acclimated. As most people are completely out of touch with their bodies, waiting for thirst to kick in is a bad idea.

The thing is, your body could be crying out for water long before you recognize thirst, but its most likely falling on deaf ears. In humans there appears to be a form of cognitive control on responding to the thirst signals and perhaps this ability to override the signals leads in the long term to an inability to perceive correctly thirst, causing some individuals to stay hypohydrated for long periods throughout life.

Missed Signals

The thirst response becomes weaker if you dont respond to it appropriately so the body has to find other ways of communicating impending dehydration. The signals get louder the more you ignore them. Did you know that if you feel tired, irritable, dizzy, fuzzy-headed or even hungry, you could just be thirsty? Headaches and backache can be signs of local dehydration (i.e. in your brain and back). On top of that, pain is felt more acutely in the presence of thirst. If you are thirsty and in pain your body has to choose which one needs more attention and pain wins. In our over-medicalized society most people would reach for a pill rather than the water. Strange that you need some water to take the pill. Just saying.

According to Dr. Batmanghelidj, author of Water: for Health, for Healing, for Life: The body signals its water shortage by producing pain. Dehydration actually produces pain and many degenerative diseases, including asthma, arthritis, hypertension, angina, adult-onset diabetes, lupus and multiple sclerosis.

He says that: Histamine is an important neurotransmitter that primarily regulates thirst mechanism for increased water intake. It also establishes a system of water rationing for the available water in the drought-stricken body. Wherever theres inflammation, theres histamine. The body constantly adapts to whatever you throw at it so sneezing, allergies, acid reflux and even osteoporosis could all be signs of an adaptation to chronic dehydration.

Color Matters

Fluid and sodium regulation is a tightly monitored and very complex system because survival depends on it. Just thinking about it logically, if you fail to adequately replenish water supplies, your body is forced to recycle the same water over and over again. You will still be alive and kicking but swimming in your own waste. This is why looking at the color of your urine and the frequency of urination can be useful.

If your urine is straw colored to clear and you pee about seven times a day, you are probably drinking enough. At the other extreme, if your urine is consistently dark and brownish green and you dont pee much, you really need to increase water consumption. Its not the perfect tool because vitamins and medication can affect the color and bladder size varies, but its a good general indicator.

Chronic dehydration cant be corrected overnight by knocking back a jug of water. Think of your body as a sponge if its dry, the water will just run off because it needs to be wet before it can absorb water properly and overdrinking has its dangers. The kidneys filter the water you drink and if they are healthy, can manage about 15 liters of water per day which is an awful lot. If you drink too much too quickly though, they cant process it fast enough. The water has to go somewhere so other cells in the body are forced to take it in.

Some cells can accommodate the extra fluid but brain cells struggle with this simply because there isnt that much room in there. If you drink enough water to cause brain cells to swell, it could lead to nasty things like seizures, respiratory arrest, coma or even death. Sounds scary but your body has built-in mechanisms to prevent this.

Sip it

Have you ever noticed that water can taste like nectar from heaven when you are really thirsty? Experiments show that when you drink water to alleviate thirst, its a very pleasant experience and two brain regions light up in particular on MRI. One of them is chock-full of opioid receptors and has been implicated in pain modulation.

However, as soon as that thirst is slaked, drinking becomes aversive and a different area of the brain, related to unpleasantness, lights up. Thats to stop you from drinking large amounts in one go, if you are listening to your body. It also supports the notion that you need to drink water like you do coffee or wine sip it, not chug it.

So maybe we have been looking at thirst the wrong way. If its not a very reliable early-warning signal, perhaps it has become more of an emergency response to drink water now. Hydration expert Lawrence E. Armstrong says: Our thirst sensation doesnt really appear until we are 1 [percent] or 2 percent dehydrated. By then dehydration is already setting in and starting to impact how our mind and body perform.

Armstrong was one of the lead scientists in two studies conducted at the University of Connecticuts Human Performance Laboratory. Mild dehydration (at 1.36%) resulted in: degraded mood, increased perception of task difficulty, lower concentration, and headache symptoms in women, and: changes in vigilance and working memory, and increased tension/anxiety and fatigue in men. Armstrong notes that dehydration is an issue for everybody, even if all you do is sit in front of a computer all day.

Dehydration equals Stress

Limited fluid intake puts unnecessary stress on all organ systems. Even in the absence of acute dehydration, higher plasma cortisol levels were found in people who consumed low levels of liquids (low drinkers or LD) but in high drinkers, cortisol excretion rises. As cortisol is a major stress hormone, it appears appropriate to hypothesise that chronic limited fluid intake in the LD may be associated with a mild but chronic stress response.

Chronic stress is the bane of our times so could the simple act of drinking more water be part of the solution? Could adequate hydration be part of the solution to a whole lot more? I found a really interesting study entitled Angiotensin inhibition and longevity: a question of hydration. The opening statement of the abstract reads: With the advancement of medical and investigative science, it is somewhat surprising that although it is possible to stabilise medical patients with hypertension and the associated kidney dysfunction, obesity, diabetes and even cancer, there is still no clear method of significantly reducing these chronic disease pathologies, and thus, extending life expectancy. I dunno, Im not particularly surprised but I suspect this is tongue-in-cheek.

The author goes on to make some amazing observations. The first is that the hormone angiotensin is common to all of the above and the second is that angiotensin antagonists are not only used to treat these conditions (plus erectile dysfunction and Alzheimers) but also happen to cause weight loss and an increase in water consumption. Angiotensin is released by the body during hypovolemia – i.e. decreased blood volume which occurs in dehydration.

His hypothesis is this: Increased cellular hydration, and hence, improved mitochondrial metabolism could be one of the mechanisms for the reduction in weight seen in these studies, as well as for reducing the other pathologies, all showing metabolic dysfunction.

The conclusion is stunning. It appears that the application of straightforward physiological regulation might be an appropriate medical approach to the prevention of hypertension, kidney disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer, and thus, to an increased life expectancy. In plain English, if you want to live a longer, healthier life, ditch the drugs and drink more water!

Less Water, More Work

Its a no-brainer that lack of sufficient water makes all your organs work harder. Your kidneys go into overdrive trying to compensate and conserve water which leads to concentrated urine that irritates the bladder and increases the possibility of bladder infections. The colon has to deal with harder stools and the risk of constipation rises which puts pressure on the bladder and contributes to frequent urination but the kidneys are doing their best to limit urine production. Its a mess. Toxins also build up in the lymphatic system, leading to fluid retention.

If theres less water available for blood, red blood cells become stickier, more concentrated and less flexible, which means your blood becomes thicker and your heart has to use more force to push it around. Red blood cells deliver oxygen to cells, so less oxygen equals less energy and more dysfunction. Dehydration tips the scales towards acidification because it activates an enzymatic slowdown. Cancer and most other diseases thrive in a low oxygen environment.

Ill leave you with this thought on the pH scale, the difference between one number and the next represents a tenfold difference in pH. Carbonated soft drinks weigh in with a pH of about three roughly ten thousand times more acidic than pure water.