The Hierarchy of Health, part 2

Last week I introduced my Hierarchy of Health. This lists, in order of importance, what I consider to be the four elements of good physical health. They are:

1. Sleep

2. Hydration

3. Nutrition

4. Exercise

And yes, I'm well aware that this order is the reverse of what most people consider.​ If you missed last week's post you can read it HERE. I received a lot of good feedback on that post and some interesting questions, which brought to mind an essential caveat - Your personal mileage may vary.

For you see, each one of us is a unique variation on a common theme. When we talk of things like sleep, hydration, diet and exercise we can talk in generalities, but your specific prescription is unique to your genetics, environment, lifestyle and a host of other factors. As much as we'd like a simple answer, life is much too complicated to oblige.

This is why the concept of an internal dialog is so important. And, as with any good dialog, the most important part of that dialog is for you to listen.​ Your body speaks to you, all the time. Are you listening? For most of us our default is to just find ways to make it quiet. Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Prilosec, and most of the over the counter medications we take are ways of shutting up our bodies so we don't have to listen or take the responsibility of making the changes our bodies cry out for. 

The second tier on our Hierarchy of Health is hydration. It is here that being able to listen to our bodies becomes particularly important.​ Why? Because most of what we've been told about hydration (even from me) simply isn't true. Dehydration is the state at which, due to lack of sufficient water, basic bodily functions like digestion, assimilation, and elimination become impaired.

Conventional wisdom states that we need eight 8 ounces glasses of water a day. Only no one really knows where that idea comes from. In 1945 the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council stated that adults needed to take in 2.5 liters of water a day which is roughly eight glasses worth. They also stated, however, that liquid requirement is satisfied by food with no additional water intake.​

​Read that? You can stay hydrated just off the water already present in the food you eat. Shocking I know. Additionally, all liguids count toward your hydration needs, including milk, coffee, tea, alcohol and soft drinks. Yes, I said soft drinks count towards your hydration needs. They also overly contribute to your general caloric intake and sugar load. Which is why I avoid them.

Caffeine has been blamed as a dehydrator due to its diuretic effects, but the research I've done suggests that the overall water content of your coffee or tea far outweighs the amount the caffeine might be dumping off.

I've certainly been guilty of jumping on the hyper-hydration bandwagon. Only I've always found it damned difficult to do, sometimes even problematic.

Bro-science states that as a dedicated gym rat you need to pound a gallon of water a day. This is why you see a lot of well intentioned young bros toting gallon jugs of water with them everywhere they go. I've even reported the new-ish rule of 1/2 an ounce of water per pound of body weight. A formula which, by the way, puts me drinking over a gallon a day, a feat I was rarely ever able to achieve. Excessive trips to the bathroom aside.

​You see, all of this water drinking really doesn't make much sense from an evolutionary perspective. Yes, we need water, but if we needed it in the quantity we're being told we do we'd have never left the river basin. Water is heavy. A gallon weighs over eight pounds. Exploration into areas shy of water becomes prohibitive when you need to pack 60 pounds of just water to accommodate a week long trek. Which by the way is three days out from water and three days back. Our need for water, even for optimal health is just exaggerated.

This doesn't mean don't drink water. By all means do. But maybe there's a different measure for how much you need, something that's a bit more accurate than an external prescription based on questionable science.​

Enter the internal dialog.​

We have two basic systems for assessing our hydration levels and whether or not we need to increase our intake. The first is thirst. Yep, it's that simple. Thirsty? Drink something. The old wives tale that if you're thirsty you're already dehydrated is just not true. Your body works better than that. In fact, thirst kicks in as water levels hit 1% or less of optimal. You know who likes to tell us we don't know what's good for us? People with something to sell.

Which leads us to sports drinks. Gatorade and Powerade are the market leaders in specialty rehydration elixirs aimed at the average athlete. They offer a blend of carbohydrates, sodium, potassium and other electrolytes aimed at maximizing hydration for hard working bodies. Are they necessary? Not really. In fact, for most of us they're just calorie bombs uniquely suited to undo the hard work we just did in our efforts to lose weight.​ Worried about your electrolytes? Add a pinch of sea salt to your water bottle. You'll get the exact same benefit without the added calories.

The other system for assessing hydration is the color of your urine. Here's a handy chart for assessing. As you can see the darker your pee the more dehydrated you are. Which is something we all intuitively know. I mean if you saw something in the darker ranges coming out of your body you'd know right away, "Whoah, something is not right."​

So, if staying hydrated is so easy why is it the second tier of our Hierarchy of Health?

Simple, because being hydrated affects all other the other levels. Similarly, for some of us, getting enough sleep isn't all that difficult but that doesn't diminish the importance of that sleep to our overall health and well being. Being hydrated affects our bodies' ability to digest food, assimilate nutrition and eliminate waste, processes that vitally affect our ability to move and  function in the world.​

Listen to your body. Learn to read it's signals. Environment and activity greatly affect how we respond to the world. In Alabama, in July, we lose a lot more water than we do in November or March. Knowing how to listen allows you to respond accordingly based on your needs.​

To our perfect imperfection,


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One Comment

  1. Thanks, Dave. Great summary of hydration issues.

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