Many people disregard the importance of drinking sufficient water. Our body relies heavily on having enough liquids which it uses for the good functioning of most of its systems. From our brain to our cardiovascular system, skin, eyes, mucous membranes in the throat or lungs, so many systems, organs and processes need water to function. Dehydration affects our health at more than one level and the more it continues and the more severe it becomes, the higher the health risks for us, even moreso when it is so easy to become dehydrated.
So what is there to do when you are dehydrated? Correct the deficiency of fluids and electrolytes, reverse symptoms and learn to avoid the causes that have lead to such losses. Because the side effects of dehydration on our body can go from mere sweating and dry, chapped lips to low blood pressure, fast heart rate, weakness and loss of consciousness. In the worst of cases, severe dehydration can encourage unfortunate cardiovascular events such as a heart attack in heart disease sufferers or represent a medical emergency for small children, the elderly or even people with a chronic illness.
Dehydration and the heart. What makes dehydration dangerous for our health and wellbeing is the fact that along with water we also lose minerals and electrolytes such as potassium, sodium or magnesium. These micronutrients have an incredible impact on many aspects of our health, regulating the activity of the cardiovascular system first and foremost. Sodium is good in small amounts because it helps keep our blood pressure up. However, too much of it will lead to high blood pressure. Sodium also helps our body retain water, which is good as long as our intake is sufficiently low so it doesn’t lead to water retention.
Potassium counteracts the effects of too much sodium and thus regulates fluid levels in the body in order to maintain a stable blood volume, optimal blood pressure and normal heart rate. Magnesium is for the heart itself. The heart is a muscle and needs magnesium to contract regularly, preventing extrasystoles, palpitations and other abnormalities.
Because dehydration causes us to lose these important electrolytes, it may increase the chances for heart attack in people suffering from various forms of cardiovascular disease. In most cases, heart disease is a severe, prolonged deficiency of such nutrients. Not surprisingly, people suffering from cardiovascular disease are most affected by high temperatures because dehydration causes them even more severe deficiencies.
Heart disease sufferers are often already low on heart-friendly nutrients such as potassium and magnesium and getting dehydrated makes them lose even more of them, leaving their body incapable of regulating heart rate, blood volume and blood pressure, hence the higher risks for unfortunate outcomes. In hot weather, when the risk of dehydration is high for everyone, medical professionals recommend oral rehydration solutions or beverages with added electrolytes and glucose, all elements our body loses along with liquids.
How to combat dehydration
Our body needs to rehydrate to recover its normal functions, which means:
1) Always have a bottle of water, a sports drink (not energy drink) or a packaged oral rehydration salts solution (to take with water) with you. Carrying a small bottle of water and an oral rehydration salts packet, especially when it’s hot outside is ideal to prevent dehydration. If you are experiencing any symptom of dehydration, just mix the content of the package with water according to recommendations and drink in small sips to recover.
Oral rehydration salts or sports drinks: which is better for dehydration? And what is the difference between oral rehydration salts and sports drinks? The oral rehydration salts contain electrolytes, usually potassium, sodium and glucose in carefully considered percentages. A sports drink is the next best thing because it contains mineral electrolytes such as potassium to help regulate heart rate and blood pressure and sugars to provide a temporary boost in energy. This is a good option for preventing hypoglycemia as well because the sugars help raise blood sugar levels just enough to give us an opportunity to eat something more consistent.
Sports drinks are not the same as energy drinks. In addition to simple sugars, energy drinks may contain stimulants such as caffeine for an increase in energy levels. However, caffeine and other similar ingredients are not too good for a dehydrated body. It’s not caffeine that our body needs, but electrolytes and water. Plain bottled water is the next best solution for correcting dehydration, but it might not be as efficient as oral rehydration salts or sports drinks in some cases.
2) Cool down and rest. When you get dehydrated you feel weak and often too hot in your own skin. The best thing to do is to look for shade and rest for a while on a bench or even on a sidewalk or under a tree. You can also go to a supermarket and enjoy the air conditioning or apply cold water to your face, hands or entire length of the arm, neck, chest or feet to help you cool down. If you have to be outside in hot weather, it is best to wear loose clothing, preferably in light colors that don’t attract sunlight as much and comfortable shoes. A hat or paper fan are also useful.
Indoors, you can benefit from the use of air conditioning and electric fans to cool down. It is best to avoid spending too much time outdoors when temperatures are high, or at least not in direct sunlight. If you must be outside, look for shade or retreat to cooler areas or buildings every now and then.
3) Cease any form of physical effort. Depending on how dehydrated we are, we may need to stop any form of physical effort that may lead to further loss of fluids. Whether it’s lifting something heavy, exercising or simply walking, anything that seems to require too much effort is best avoided until we feel better. Even after taking rehydration salts, the body needs time and rest to recover so it might be best not to rush things.
4) Eat and rest to regain your strength and allow your body to recover. Dehydration is most likely to occur in summer, especially during heat waves. And when temperatures are high and rising we don’t feel like eating anything, so we might risk becoming hypoglycemic in addition to getting dehydrated. Once we replenish our fluids and electrolytes reserves, we should rest a little, enjoy a balanced meal, preferably easy on the stomach and then rest some more. Also make sure to avoid high temperatures for the duration of our recovery.
5) Avoid problematic foods and beverages. Dehydration can be made worse by some foods and beverages. Coffee and caffeinated beverages, alcohol, foods that are too spicy or too salty are not good for us when it’s too hot. It is also best to avoid large meals or foods that are too fatty. The sheer discomfort they create can stress our body even more and delay our recovery. Yogurt, whole grains, lean chicken meat, salads, fruits and all sorts of vegetables are better choices.
6) Seek medical help if dehydration is severe and symptoms do not get better. While having a dry mouth or sweating during hot weather is not that great of a concern, other symptoms of dehydration are. A high heart rate that doesn’t go down, ongoing dizziness, confusion, trouble staying on your feet and general weakness, feeling like you are going to faint, unusual sleepiness or nausea are signs we might need to see a doctor. When you feel symptoms are overwhelming or things are just not right, the best course of action is to seek medical help.