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Thirsty? Water is not enough
Radhieka Pandeya
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June 15, 2007

The thought that there might be a sea inside our body is quite delightful, isn't it? The human body is 70 per cent water and, much like sea water, the water in our body is mixed with salts and minerals.

Water and salts are the very essence of life, for the earth and for our bodies, which is why it is imperative to conserve and replenish them. Dehydration, a common problem, especially in summer, follows from this -- it is the lack of water and salts in the body and the inability to replenish them in time.

Quite obviously, the water in your body is not concentrated in one area. In fact, it is distributed through various functions. Almost 80 per cent of the total water is distributed in the cells, approximately 15 per cent is extra-cellular and the rest runs through the blood vessels.

Having made itself indispensable to the body, water is essential for every bodily function and excessive loss of water often leads to a state of dehydration.

Well, I can drink an extra litre of water to rehydrate the body, you might argue. You can, but plain water is not the only thing the dehydrated body misses.

Salts are also lost in the process. Known as electrolytes in medical terms, 'salts' here refers to sodium and potassium, the scarcity of which can lead to serious medical problems.

The body begins sending out warning signals when two per cent of its normal water volume is lost.

"In fact," says Dr Vivek Raj, senior consultant for gastroenterology and hepatology with Max Hospital, New Delhi, "on an average we lose 800-1,000 ml of water daily through sweat, a figure that rises two to three times in summer." The first warning comes in the form of thirst, followed by loss of appetite and dry skin.

However, more often than not, this warning goes unnoticed. Hence follows the second set of symptoms -- headache, extreme weakness and lethargy, muscle cramps, disorientation and maybe a sudden episode of visual snow.

In slightly more advanced cases, dehydration can also lead to kidney failure, seizures and unconsciousness. In the most severe cases, where the body loses more than 15 per cent of its water, the condition can also be fatal.

Water loss is accompanied, as mentioned earlier, by the loss of electrolytes like sodium and potassium. The lack of sodium, an active ingredient in table salt, leads to a state of confusion and even convulsions, while lack of potassium is known to create disturbances in the heart's rhythm, all of which are associated with dehydration.

Water scarcity in the body can be the result of numerous factors, the most common of which are diarrhoea and vomiting, which are normally caused by an infection. Infections like cholera and gastroenteritis are known to lead to enormous loss of water.

Of course, overwhelming heat followed by excessive sweating is another form of water loss. The dysfunctioning of the kidney, producing excessive urination, results in water loss, eventually reaching a point when urine ceases to pass completely.

Amongst diseases, diabetes when not kept under control is also considered a culprit. If you're taking diuretics, it is advisable to increase your water and salt intake. Fitness fanatics also need to make sure they keep their body hydrated and healthy to compensate for the extra sweat they deal with.

You've heard it before, and we'll say it again: the best way to prevent dehydration is by drinking lots of water -- according to some, three litres is the body's daily requirement.

But sometimes even that can't assure you avoid the condition, especially if it is caused by factors other than sweat and heat. Dr Raj suggests taking oral rehydration solutions (ORS) if you have diarrhoea.

ORS is considered the most effective fluid for countering dehydration since it replenishes water as well as the electrolytes. Since drinking litres of plain water daily can get monotonous, nutritionist Ishi Khosla suggests nimbu paani (lime juice) mixed with sugar. Another ideal, flavoured homemade medicine is a pinch of salt mixed with coconut water.

Though the nimbu paani solution can be taken with salt alone, sugar tends to facilitate quicker sodium and water absorption in the body. Those suffering from heart conditions however, must consult their doctors before increasing the salt in their diet. Khosla also recommends sports drinks for those who exercise a lot, since they provide ample water and nutrition.

"Always drink before you start a sport to hydrate your body. In between, make sure you keep sipping on something," she says.

Dehydration can be at its worst among children and the elderly, which is why they should be taken to see a doctor at the very first sign of trouble. In some cases, intravenous fluids may be given to bring the body's water level back to normal, after which the doctor may suggest other sources for rehydration.

So, lots of fluids and fruits with high water content are what you need to keep yourself healthy, even if you naturally cut down on your food intake in summer. However, fluids does not include alcohol of any kind, especially beer, which can in fact lead to dehydration.
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