Most of us love the summer months, spending time anywhere the weather’s warm and working up a good sweat. But long periods of hot, humid climates — or exposure to soaring temperatures in other forms, such as from exercising — can lead to problems associated with an electrolyte imbalance, including dehydration. Surveys show that 60 percent to 75 percent of Americans don’t drink enough water daily! (1) Being sure to stay properly hydrated, especially whenever you’re losing fluids, is the very best way to feel your best and also ward off potential heat exhaustion and dehydration symptoms.
There’s a lot more to dehydration than simply feeling very thirsty. Signs of dehydration can also include spasms, tension in your neck or jaw, constipation, vomiting, and heart problems. (2) Many people who experience symptoms like trouble concentrating or lingering muscle pains have no idea that they’re really suffering from preventable dehydration symptoms. Research is now showing how much dehydration can impact overall moods and cognitive functions, contributing to impairments in vision, perceptive discrimination, tracking, recall, attention, psychomotor skills and memory. (3)
Who does dehydration affect most? Athletes, people who perform manual labor outdoors, children, those with GI issues and the elderly are all especially susceptible to the effects of dehydration. Many elderly people experience serious health problems during extreme weather periods, such as the heat of summertime. In fact, elderly dehydration is one of the main reasons the elderly are hospitalized each year.
So what do you need to do in order to protect yourself from dehydration and the sometimes-dangerous effects of fluid and electrolyte loss? As you’ll learn, drinking enough water daily, monitoring your thirst and urination, and rehydrating after workouts are all important steps.
Dehydration Symptoms and Signs
There are subtle differences between the signs of dehydration and the signs of hypernatremia. Hypernatremia is characterized by loss of water more than loss of electrolytes. Some of the symptoms of dehydration and of hypernatremia are similar, although they might affect people differently.
Hypernatremia isn’t always more serious than dehydration, but for some symptoms are more noticeable and severe. Once you do get dehydrated you can quickly progress into “severe dehydration” if you don’t do something about it — and fast. Therefore, becoming familiar with the early signs and symptoms of dehydration is critical to avoiding worsening dehydration symptoms and even preventing a hospital visit.
The most common warning signs and symptoms of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth
- Decreased urination
- Muscle weakness
- Digestive issues
Muscles within your digestive tract need enough water to contract properly in order to help you go to the bathroom. So either high or low levels of water and/or electrolytes can result in diarrhea, constipation, cramping or hemorrhoids.
If dehydration progresses over a period of time, severe dehydration symptoms might be experienced, which can include:
- Extreme thirst
- Extremely dry mouth and mucus membranes
- Sunken eyes
- Lack of sweating
- Lack of tears
- Very little or no urination
- Skin that won’t “bounce back” when touched (due to moisture loss)
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
Symptoms of hypernatremia can include:
- Warm, velvety skin
- Dry mucus membranes
- Complaints of extreme thirst
- Rigidity and stiffness of the muscles or joints
Natural Treatments for Dehydration Symptoms
1. Drink Enough Water Daily
It’s vital to listen to your body and drink water throughout the day. Water is the best way to prevent and beat dehydration, especially during the warm summer months when we’re all prone to perspiring even more than usual.
Simply consuming the recommended eight to 10 eight-ounce glasses of water on a daily basis is usually enough for most to maintain healthy electrolyte levels. When you’re exposed to very hot temperatures, or during and after workouts, drinking more is a good idea. Factors like your diet, age, physical activity level and body size all determine how much water you need, so it’s very helpful to keep an eye out for dehydration symptoms and drink based on your level of thirst.
How do you know you’re drinking enough water? A good rule of thumb is to drink enough so you urinate at least every three to four hours. Your urine shouldn’t be dark yellow but doesn’t need to be clear either. You’re looking for a color somewhere in the middle, usually a pale yellow. For most people, this happens when they consume eight to 10 glasses daily, but again your needs might vary depending on the day.
Keep in mind that women who are pregnant or breast-feeding need additional fluids (about 10–13 glasses every day) to stay hydrated and prevent deficiencies, as do teenagers who are growing and developing faster than people of other ages. Anyone taking antibiotics, diuretics, hormonal pills, blood pressure medications and cancer treatments might also become dehydrated more easily, so extra fluids are a good idea.
2. Eat More Hydrating Foods
Here are 10 of the best naturally hydrating foods to include in your diet regularly:
- Coconut water or coconut milk
- Watermelon and other melon
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit
- Cultured dairy foods (including yogurt, kefir and amasai)
Other good sources of water from foods include bananas, grapes, bitter melon, papaya, lettuce, berries, avocado, zucchini, tomatoes and radishes. It also helps to decrease foods high in sodium, including those are packaged, canned, frozen or processed.
As you can see, foods that are hydrating tend to be vegetables and fruits. They have a high water content and also contain valuable electrolytes. There’s a reason tropical fruits like mangos and pineapple are so popular among populations living near the equator where it’s very warm. One example is those living in Costa Rica, an area that’s one of the world’s healthy blue zones. People living here have one of the longest expected life spans in the world and regularly eat hydrating foods, including tomatoes, oranges and mangos.
Need some ideas for using these hydrating foods in recipes? You can start by making creative green smoothie recipes, the perfect way to increase intake of numerous fruits and veggies all at once with little effort to keep dehydration symptoms at bay.
3. Try Healthy Alternatives to Plain Water
If drinking regular water isn’t always appealing to you, you’ll be happy to know that there are other low-sugar, hydrating options. Coconut water is one of nature’s best hydrating drinks, for example. It contains many things that contribute to hydration, like potassium, amino acids, enzymes, growth factors and minerals. In fact, the chemical makeup of coconut water is similar to human blood, which makes it perfect for helping us recover from dehydration or exercise.
Other drinks that can help keep you hydrated include:
- Homemade vegetable juices
- Fruit smoothies
- Vegetable pops made from pureed and frozen fruit
- Herbal teas
- Sparkling water with fruit slices
- Warm water with fresh-squeezed lemon or lime and a little raw honey
- Hot water with fresh steeped herbs (such as ginger, peppermint or dandelion)
- Coconut kefir
- Bone broth and other vegetable broths
Looking for drinks to avoid in order to help prevent dehydration and dehydration symptoms? These include alcohol, too much caffeine from coffee or tea, soda and sweetened drinks. All of these can cause increased urination, dehydration, electrolyte loss, and in the case of too much sugar inflammation and worsened symptoms.
4. Hydrate During and After Exercise
During times of increased activity or exercise, we lose balance of electrolytes because we sweat more. The best way to offset this process and prevent dehydration is to consume more water than usual. Drink a glass before a workout, at least one during and one immediately after. All in all, aim for about 1.5 to 2.5 cups for shorter workouts and about three extra cups for longer workouts that last more than one hour. (4)
In the case of vigorous exercise or endurance training, it’s also beneficial to drink something with natural electrolytes, including sodium chloride or potassium chloride. The problem is that most sports drinks have tons of added sugar and synthetic flavorings, so opt for something like coconut water instead. It’s also helpful to eat a balanced meal after exercise and then continue drinking water throughout the rest of the day. If you notice yourself feeling dizzy or heavily cramping up, try drinking more fluids immediately and consuming something with electrolytes until you feel better.
5. Prevent Dehydration During illnesses
If you’ve been sick, including with a fever that causes vomiting or diarrhea, or you have a gastrointestinal issue that causes these symptoms (such as inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease), make sure to increase your water intake. Dehydration caused by illnesses can contribute to complications, including kidney stones, bladder infections, urinary tract stones and potentially even heart failure. Electrolyte drinks can be helpful during chronic vomiting or diarrhea.
What Is Dehydration?
There are actually several types and levels of dehydration:
Dehydration is defined as the excessive loss of bodily fluids. In other words, it occurs when the body needs more fluids than are being consumed in order to function normally. The bodily fluids that are lost and desperately needed during dehydration are either water (H2O), one or more electrolytes, or commonly a combination of both.
Electrolytes are substances that become ions in a solution and are able to conduct electricity. They’re present throughout the human body and essential for normal functioning of all organs and cells. Electrolytes are required at specific levels in the body to carry electrical signals, help keep the pH balanced and maintain critical functions like heartbeat rhythms. The main types of electrolytes found in the body are calcium, sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and bicarbonate. Out of these electrolytes, potassium, sodium and chloride ions are considered the “most essential” electrolytes in regard to hydration. (5)
Some parts of the body are more “electrically wired” than others, so they require higher amounts of these important ions (electrolytes). The body parts that most rely on proper electrolyte balance and hydration, and are therefore especially prone to damage caused by fluid loss, include the brain, central nervous system and muscular system. (6)
About 60 percent of our bodies is composed of water, while 75 percent of our muscles and 85 percent of our brains are made up of water.
Our body naturally helps balance electrolyte and water levels when we drink normal amounts of fluids. We become thirstier, for example, when we require more water and urinate more often when we can afford to lose excess water and electrolytes. Electrolytes and water are found in our daily diets in things like fruits and veggies — for example, potassium is found in bananas and spinach and calcium in leafy greens and dairy. Sodium and chloride ions are mainly provided by table salt (usually labeled sodium chloride) but are also naturally found in other foods too, such as meat.
Here’s an overview of the role that different electrolytes have and how they can contribute to dehydration:
Sodium is a positive ion on the outside of cells. Too much sodium can cause a type of dehydration called hypernatremia. High sodium intake is a big concern for people eating a “typical western diet” or what many refer to as the Standard American Diet, which includes many packaged foods.
Potassium is a positive ion found on the inside of cells. It plays a critical role in regulating heartbeat and muscle functions. A deviation in potassium levels, either higher than they should be or lower than the body requires, can adversely impact the heart rhythm and cause changes in blood pressure. Many people are low in potassium, which is made worse by consuming lots of sodium.
Chloride is a negatively charged ion found outside of cells in the blood. It aids the body in balancing other fluids. A significant increase or decrease in chloride levels in the body can lead to serious health problems, including death.
Magnesium is needed for muscle contractions, proper heart rhythms, nerve functioning, bone-building and strength, reducing anxiety, digestion, and keeping a stable protein-fluid balance. That’s why magnesium deficiency is harmful and can lead to dehydration symptoms.
Bicarbonate ions act as a buffer and help the body maintain proper pH levels (the ratio of acid to alkalinity).
A variety of hormones control the activity and concentrations of electrolytes in body. Electrolytes are mainly secreted in the kidneys and adrenal glands. They’re controlled by hormones, including rennin, angiotensin, aldosterone and antidiuretic hormones.
What Causes Dehydration?
There are three main types of dehydration depending on the specific fluids that are lost: (7)
- Hypotonic or hyponatremic: The loss of electrolytes, mostly sodium
- Hypertonic or hypernatremic: The loss of water
- Isotonic or isonatremic: The loss of both water and electrolytes
Any of these three types of dehydration can be mild, moderate or severe. Mild is when the body has lost about 2 percent of its total fluids, moderate is the body losing 5 percent of total fluids and finally severe dehydration is when the body has lost about 10 percent of its fluids. Severe dehydration, as you can probably guess, is considered an emergency.
Dehydration can happen for all sorts of reasons, from eating a poor diet to becoming sick.
The people most at risk for dehydration symptoms include:
- Children and infants: An infant’s fluid exchange rate is seven times greater than that of an adult, and an infant’s metabolic rate is two times greater relative to body weight. These factors influence fluid levels, as does many children’s hesitancy to drink enough plain water.
- The elderly: Older people often don’t eat enough or drink enough water. Sometimes they lose the ability to feel thirsty or become accustomed to experiencing symptoms of dehydration.
- Anyone who is chronically ill, especially if the illness involves vomiting or diarrhea: It’s been found that vomiting patients likely have both restricted intakes of water and also losses of electrolytes through vomit itself. (8)
- People recovering from surgeries or viruses, in which they might not be drinking enough water due to not feeling well
- Endurance athletes
- High-altitude dwellers
- Those living or working in very hot, humid conditions: The daily water requirements for temperate conditions can double or even triple in very hot weather.
- Farmers, miners, military personnel, construction workers, fire fighters, forest workers, park and recreation employees, and industrial personnel are often highly physically active at work and have been found to experience higher rates of dehydration.
- Anyone sweating a lot or who has high fevers, which can produce extra fluid loss
- Eating a poor diet that’s low in essential nutrients from whole foods
- Having digestive issues that block normal absorption of nutrients from foods (9)
- Those with hormonal imbalances and endocrine disorders, which can affect urination
- Anyone taking certain medications, including those used to treat cancer, heart disease or hormonal disorders. This can include people taking antibiotics, over-the-counter diuretics or corticosteroid hormones.
- Those with kidney disease or damage: The kidneys play a critical role in regulating chloride in your blood and “flushing out” potassium, magnesium and sodium.
- Chemotherapy patients: Treatment can cause side effects of low blood calcium or calcium deficiency, changes in blood potassium levels, and other electrolyte deficiencies. (10)
Precautions Regarding Dehydration Symptoms
Although dehydration is dangerous for anyone, infants/children and anyone recovering from serious illnesses should be monitored for dehydration symptoms carefully. If urination stops or becomes very infrequent, it’s time to see a doctor right away.
Older adults and those who are sick can quickly become dehydrated due to age-associated and inflammation-related physiologic changes. These can include nutrient impairment, thirst impairment, incontinence, reduced mobility (constipation) and confusion. Both infants and older adults sometimes limit voluntary fluid intake, and this can increase the risk of dizziness, falls, urinary tract infections, dental disease, kidney stones and chronic constipation.
Final Thoughts on Dehydration Symptoms
- Dehydration is a condition that occurs when too much fluid is lost from the body compared to how much is taken in.
- Dehydration symptoms can include dizziness, shakiness, constipation, headaches, increased thirst, dark-colored urine, irritability and trouble concentrating.
- Complications due to dehydration can include kidney damage, heart problems, fainting, trouble seeing, falling due to loss of balance and even seizures.
- Natural treatments for dehydration include drinking water throughout the day (or other hydrating beverages), avoiding alcohol and too much salt or caffeine, consuming more hydrating fruits and veggies, and refueling with extra electrolytes during/after exercise or times of illness.
Read Next: How to Stay Hydrated in 4 Steps
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