How Even Mild Dehydration Can Ruin Your Day

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Ask yourself. Do you feel sleepy? Have a bit of a headache? Are you craving candy?

You could be slightly dehydrated.

It’s true! Less than optimal amounts of water in your body can cause uncomfortable changes in a hurry.

On the other hand, getting enough water every day can have a number of health benefits.

How do you know what’s enough?

It’s not the same for everyone. It depends on body size, activity, climate, and more, but one thing you can do is tune into how you feel. Subtle cues like feeling just a little thirsty, irritable, or fatigued are signs you need to refill your glass.

Symptoms of Mild Dehydration

Usually when we think of dehydration, we picture the poor chap in the desert, his horse flat out on the sand behind him, his tongue hanging out as he crawls desperately to a pond that turns out to be a mirage.

Dehydration is rarely that dramatic.

When it first starts out, it provides only small cues. Every cell in the body relies on water to function optimally, and even a small dip in supply can start a chain reaction of adjustments.

At the slightest indication we might be running low (mild dehydration is defined as about 1.5 percent loss in normal water volume), the body releases hormones that signal the kidneys to slow down. Preserve some of that water rather than flushing it out through urine, the hormones say. You’ll go the bathroom less, and when you do, it will be a darker color because it’s more concentrated.

The body makes other adjustments, too. Scientists theorize that blood vessels narrow to maintain fluid levels, which may be why one of the first clues you’re not getting enough water is a mild headache.

Your breath can go bad as your body no longer has enough fluid to make optimal levels of saliva. Saliva helps kill bacteria in the mouth, so without proper levels, bacteria can build up, causing your co-workers to cover their noses when they’re talking to you.

Even slightly low amounts water in your system also make it harder for the body to get the fuel it needs to keep you going about your day. This can signal an energy deficit, which makes you crave food—usually sugary treats that the body can use for fast fuel (and fast weight gain).

Did you notice you just couldn’t concentrate on your meeting or project this morning? That could be mild dehydration talking, too. A 2012 study found that being just a little low on your fluid stores could alter your mood, energy level, and ability to think clearly. Women in the study even felt the tasks they were required to do were more difficult when they were slightly dehydrated.

And if you woke up feeling like you had just aged by 20 years because your joints were so stiff, ask yourself how much water you drank the day before. There is some evidence that dehydration can lead to joint pain. We all have fluid between the joints that helps keep them lubricated and moving smoothly. When the body gets low on water, it steals it from what it considers less vital sources—which may be the joints—potentially leaving your knees, hips, elbows, and even your spine a bit dry and creaky.

The Body Warns You—Water Supply Low

Your body works miracles adjusting to the situation, but meanwhile it tries to signal you to fix the problem. Symptoms of mild dehydration include the following:

·       Thirst, though in your busy day, you may not notice it

·       Dry mouth

·       Bad breath

·       Mild headache—can trigger migraines

·       Feeling sleepy or sluggish

·       Food cravings, particularly for sweets

·       Dry skin

·       Muscle cramps

·       Reduced tears (could lead to dry eyes)

·       Difficulty concentrating

·       Memory problems

If you’re tuned into these signals, you can reach for a nice cold glass of water or even a watery snack like strawberries or leafy greens to quickly remedy the situation.

If you’re out on that desert, though—or maybe exercising, hiking, or doing yard work under the hot sun—you may not notice these symptoms. Your body doesn’t get the water it needs, and things can quickly get worse.

Symptoms of More Severe Dehydration

Full-blown dehydration occurs when the body just can’t keep up anymore. It’s pulled out all the tricks in the book, but for whatever reason, you haven’t replenished your fluid stores. There’s nothing else it can do, and things start to go very wrong.

The body turns to drastic measures, and steals water from inside the cells to supply the bloodstream. The heart starts to beat faster as the blood thickens and becomes harder to pump. Tissues in the body begin to dry out, and cells—reeling from the loss of water—begin to malfunction.

Symptoms of severe dehydration include:

·       Extreme thirst

·       Sunken eyes

·       Confusion and disorientation

·       Shriveled and dry skin

·       Low blood pressure

·       Rapid heartbeat and breathing

·       Inability to sweat or produce tears

·       Fever

·       Lack of urination

Common causes of this type of dehydration include:

·       Medical problems and/or treatments that produce diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting; these may include cancer treatments, food poisoning, and other similar medical issues

·       Fever

·       Chronic illnesses like diabetes, alcoholism, and inflammatory bowel diseases

·       Vigorous exercise

·       Hot and humid environments

·       Age (infants, children, and seniors are more at risk)

·       Fever

In today’s busy world, it can be difficult to remember to drink enough water. Particularly when we’re running from activity to activity, we can become mildly dehydrated without even realizing it until that dreaded headache or fatigue comes on.

If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2007 that overall, nearly half of respondents to their survey drank less than four cups of water per day. Over a third drank only one-to-three cups.

Though there has been some debate as to just what is “enough” water, most health experts still recommend the standard eight cups a day. Keep in mind that you may need more, particularly if you’re in a hot and humid climate or if you’re exercising and sweating.

If you’re having trouble getting that much water into your day, try these tips:

1.     Start your day by drinking one or 2 full glasses of water.

2.     Drink before each meal—it will not only keep you hydrated, but may help you eat less. Potential weight-loss bonus!

3.     Keep a water bottle with you wherever you go so you can always be sipping throughout the day.

4.     Keep a timer around and set it to go off every 30 minutes. If you work at a desk job, this is a great way to get you up and out of the chair to go get a glass of water.

5.     Make your water tastier by adding fruits—berries, lemons, oranges, limes, and cucumbers work perfectly. You can also add some ginger or use sparkling water when you want a treat.

6.     Snack on water-rich foods like grapes, citrus fruits, melons, greens, and tomatoes.

7.     Pay attention to your body’s cues—when you feel thirsty, sleepy, or irritable, drink a glass of water and see if that doesn’t help.



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“Dehydration<” National Health Service, May 17, 2013,


Alyson B. Goodman, et al., “Behaviors and Attitudes Associated with Low Drinking Water Intake Among U.S. Adults, Food Attitudes and Behaviors Survey, 2007,” Prev Chron Dis., 2013; 10:120248,


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