Water, the Brain, & You

February 20th, 2010

By Wendy Kovacs, LMFT
HCC Senior Clinician

I was in a training recently, and as we were working through the therapeutic exercises I was surprised to discover how thirsty I was! The other participants seemed to be having a similar reaction, so we asked the instructor why working our brain made us so thirsty. It turns out that up to 75% of our bodies are made up of water. Even as little as a 2% drop in this level can affect a person’s ability to think, perform, and stay healthy.

When the body does not get enough water it perceives this as a threat to survival, and flips into survival mode. Every system in the body depends on water to function so when the body is short on water, all systems are impacted. First, the kidneys slow down, forcing the liver to work harder, which reduces its ability to metabolize fat and turn food into energy. This creates a feeling of lethargy, slowness, and trouble getting started on tasks. Then, without the water they need to expand and contract, the muscles slow down, leading to increased tension and pain in the muscles and joints. This feeling of rigidity is the body’s attempt to conserve water for other, primary functions. Heart rate then increases because the heart is trying to pump thick, dehydrated blood around the body, and respiration increases. Lung dehydration (which is caused by shallow, rapid breathing) is specifically listed as a major factor contributing to many respiratory diseases, including asthma. Finally, the endocrine system slows down. Instead of flowing freely as it ought to, spinal fluid become thick and sticky, so the body’s ability to be aware of sensations from around the body is reduced.

Specifically in the brain, water is the essential component that allows neurons to transfer energy signals, or talk, to each other. Water carries the neurotransmitters around the brain and through the body. When dehydrated, the body struggles to know how many, and which, neurotransmitters are available for use. Dehydration also alters the balance of amino acids, a critical nutrient for brain development and growth. Amino acid imbalances resulting from dry cells in the body have been shown to lead to DNA errors during cell division, which can lead to many diseases such as cancer. All of the cells in the body require water to be able to absorb nutrients, and current research suggests that many nutrient deficiencies are caused by dehydration. Because the body is confused and not functioning properly, people who are even slightly dehydrated tend to be irritable and explosive, have reduced ability to solve problems, and sense increased pains throughout their bodies. Sound like anyone you know?

So what does all of this mean to you and your daily life? Many behavioral and sensory input difficulties can actually be reduced by simply increasing water intake! While water may not be the miracle cure, keeping ourselves and our kids hydrated can help in many areas!

Most kids, especially those who have experienced trauma, are not able to listen to or understand what their body is telling them. In other words, they do not necessarily know when they are thirsty because their body sends them mixed signals about their environment. Even in normally functioning body systems, judging how much water you need simply by how thirsty you are is not recommended by the American Medical Association. By the time you feel thirsty, you are at least partially dehydrated. Only a doctor can tell you exactly how much water you or your child needs each day, because many individual factors impact this number. However, a general working formula is to drink one ounce of water for every three pounds that you weigh. This amount should be increased under times of stress, physical activity, and when you sweat. Children and elderly people should never go more than 4 hours without eating or drinking because they can become dehydrated more easily than other groups of people.

Will only water do? Thank goodness, the answer to that is no! According to current research and recommendations from the American Medical Association, about 80% of our water needs to come from liquids in our diet while the other 20% can come from the foods in our diet. For example, oranges are 87% water, and cucumbers are 95% water. Among other things, milk, juice, broth, Jell-O, and popsicles all have large amounts of water. Conversely, dried fruits, nuts, grain products, and baked goods generally contain less water. Alcohol and beverages with caffeine do not count towards the total water intake, because they are diuretics which actually drain the body of water.

So … How do I get my family to drink enough water?? An age-old question asked by almost everyone! Here are some suggestions:

  • Serve a glass of water first at mealtimes. Only after the water is gone, offer another beverage.
  • Keep refillable water bottles in the fridge for quick access. Be sure to thoroughly wash them every time they are emptied.
  • Pack snack-sized water bottles instead of juice boxes in snacks and lunches.
  • Keep a water bottle in your child’s backpack and in your work bag. There are several water bottles available now that have convenient carrying rings attached to them.
  • Keep water in the car when running errands. Not only does drinking water curb hunger, it reduces the desire for sweet and salty snacks (translation: less whining in the store for every snack your kids see!!)
  • Use individual packets of flavoring to make water more exciting. Individual packets are available from KoolAid, Crystal Light, and Lipton, among others.

By putting to practice a few of these tricks, you will be helping you and your family stay healthy, happy, and hydrated!