Water is truly the “fluid of life”, critical for the optimal function of all systems in your body. You are made up of over 3 trillion cells, all of which are constantly “talking” to one another to keep your body and brain running on all cylinders. Hydration is crucial to this communication; if your water intake from fluids and foods doesn’t meet your body’s demands, your health and performance will suffer.
How Do You Know If You’re Not Properly Hydrated?
Common symptoms of dehydration include a dry or sticky mouth (especially first thing in the morning), constipation (as your body draws from resources in the gut to make up for sub-optimal hydration), headaches, dry skin, decreased urine output, thirst and light-headedness.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to sub-optimal hydration, however the most common causes include intense exercise, training in hot weather, excessive caffeine or alcohol intake, diarrhea, fever and excessive sweating.  If symptoms of dehydration become severe, they require immediate medical attention. Extreme thirst, low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, fever, or increased breath rate are all red flags and are most commonly experienced during endurance competitions, in older adults, or when training in hot weather or at high altitudes.
Hydration & Exercise
While thirst may be a reliable indicator for some people to maintain the right level of hydration, the more active you are, the less reliable it becomes. Incredibly, a mere 2% drop in hydration can lead to an 8-10% decrease in your performance.  If you wait until you “feel thirsty”, you’ve waited too long. Studies show that by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.  If maintaining high productivity or achieving a new personal best is your primary goal then it’s crucial to ensure you are getting sufficient water to meet your training demands.
However, the reality is that the optimal intake of water varies significantly from one individual to the next. Depending on your age, sex, body type, level of health and activity, your ideal water intake will vary. The standard general guideline is to consume 8 glasses of water daily, divided throughout the day. While this is a good tip for most people, a Paleo diet is rich in fruits and vegetables which provide you with added hydration, so you may not need the full 8 cups.
How can you tell if you’re getting enough fluids in through water and food? Drink enough water to keep the color of your urine light yellow to clear. The darker your urine becomes, generally the more dehydrated you are (however, if you’re taking B-vitamins, they make your urine bright yellow, so this tip won’t apply).
Are Sports Drinks the Best Option for Refueling During Exercise?
For most people, water is sufficient for rehydration during exercise. However, the more intensely you train or the longer you train (i.e. greater than 90 minutes), it’s important to add electrolytes to your water. If you’re a heavy sweater or train in warm climates, you might even need salt tablets to maintain sodium levels.
Sodium is critical for maintaining optimal cellular function and if your sodium levels fall below normal – a condition called hyponatremia – you may experience symptoms of fatigue, headache, confusion, loss of balance, muscle cramps and in severe cases seizures and coma. The “cleaner” your diet (aka Paleo diet), the more salt you should add to your food or water if exercising. Same goes if you’re a heavy sweater, add more salt to your food.
Coconut water is a great Paleo-friendly choice to maintain electrolyte balance during or after exercise. Alternatively, you can make your own homemade sports drink. Try the following recipe; mix ½ cup of honey with ¼ teaspoon of sea salt, ¼ cup of lemon juice, and 2-4 pints of water. This will provide you with the simple carbs and electrolytes you need to perform your best. If homemade is not your style, there are gels made from honey that can make a suitable replacement.
(Related: 3 Refreshing Ways To Drink Coconut Water)
Although the body’s primary fuel choice is glucose, it’s important to remember that most sports drink companies use the cheaper form of sugar, sucrose (in order to improve their bottom line). Sucrose is comprised of one glucose molecule linked to one fructose molecule, and it is the fructose that you need to be wary of. If you consume too much fructose from sucrose-laden sports drinks, it delays gastric emptying (the movement of food from your stomach into your gut). This leads to cramps, abdominal discomfort and poor performance. Over-consumption of fruit has the same effect, so while dried fruit can be a nice source of instant fuel, be mindful not to overdo it as this can lead to significant bloating and discomfort!
Coffee, Alcohol and Dehydration
Coffee and alcohol are diuretics, meaning they increase your frequency of urination and can lead to excessive loss of fluids. While the research is clear that coffee and caffeine pills are ergogenic aids – improving performance by increasing work capacity and reducing your perceived exertion (i.e. how hard exercise feels) – it’s important not to overdo it. Excessive intake can lead to sub-optimal hydration and, in the long term, fatigue, poor performance, and adrenal dysfunction. I recommend clients limit coffee consumption to 1-2 cups of coffee, espresso, or Americano per day, and always have it before 1 p.m.
Regular alcohol intake can also deplete hydration and lead to dehydration. A recent study found that the average number of drinks on a night out for adults between the ages of 20-50 was 8-9 drinks, which is double the medical definition of a “binge drinking” night. Excessive alcohol intake leads to increased urination and also depletes important B-vitamins, amino acids, and key nutrients during liver detoxification.
To reduce the dehydrating effects of alcohol, make sure to drink a glass of water for every drink of alcohol, or alternatively mix hard alcohol with water or soda water (rather than soda pop or juice). The classic “hangover” results from dehydration so drinking a pint or two of water at the end of the night can also help prevent dehydration and headaches.
The Paleo Diet and Hydration
In clinical practice, clients often tell me “I know I should drink more water”, but yet they constantly struggle to get enough in throughout the day. As mentioned above, it’s not just water that promotes hydration. A diet high in vegetables and fruits is equally important for maintaining your optimal hydration level, because fruits and vegetables are loaded with water. A Paleo diet is therefore the perfect platform for maintaining your ideal hydration.
Try adding water-rich veggies like cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, radishes, bell peppers, and salad leaves to your vegetable arsenal. As for fruits, try watermelon, cantaloupe, apples, pears, oranges, and pineapple to keep your cells hydrated and running on all cylinders.
You can drink “too much” water. If you are regularly active, eat a “clean” diet (i.e. limited to no processed foods and sugars), and drink a lot of distilled water than you can flush sodium out of the body and disrupt electrolyte balance. If this sounds like you, it’s important to add sea salt to your meals – an important part of a healthy Paleo diet. If you find yourself constantly thirsty throughout the day, this can be a sign of poor blood sugar control and you should get your levels tested.
For many people, the quickest way to correct fatigue, improve your health, and boost performance is to stay on top of your hydration. Implement the strategies above and feel the difference for yourself!