Water, Water, Everywhere

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I had some cognitive dissonance this week while doing research for this article. Cognitive dissonance is when you hold two opposing views at the same time and trying to reconcile them causes some amount of pain. An example is smoking when you know it’s bad for you or driving to work instead of walking even though you care about the environment. Often, people will choose the belief that is most convenient rather than change. Someone might tell themselves that smoking will help them lose weight, or that they’ll stop next year. Both of these are lies they tell themselves to make them feel better. I am guilty of doing this when I drive two blocks to the grocery store instead of walking, because I’m lazy.


This often happens when someone learns a fact that disagrees with a habit they’ve had for a long time. It’s one of the reasons our society is often slow to change in light of new scientific evidence.


I went through this process over the last couple weeks when I was looking into something controversial. Was I studying acupuncture, or vaccines?


Nope, I was researching how much water people should drink.


Yes, really. I had a (small) existential crisis about drinking water. I’m fairly easy to throw into existential crises.


See, I am constantly dehydrated. If I don’t drink enough water throughout the day, I get horrible headaches. I worked as a park ranger at Zion National Park for a summer, which only cemented my belief that no one drinks enough water. The American Heart Association recommends drinking 8 glasses of water a day, which I’ve heard my whole life. Not to mention the $15 billion bottled water industry’s attempts to convince me to buy tap water in fancy bottles.


So, imagine my surprise when I came across the life work of one Dr. Hew-Butler, which says the opposite. Not only do people drink enough water, some people might be drinking too much. I was skeptical because if I don’t drink a cup of water every two hours, I feel crappy. My watch even has an alarm every two hours to remind me. I was so confused that after I read every piece of scientific literature on the subject I emailed her personally.


After having a conversation with her and mulling it over for a week, I think I have finally resolved my cognitive dissonance.


Dr. Hew-Butler’s whole shtick is to know, and trust, your body. When we need water, we become thirsty. The whole idea that if we’re thirsty then we’re already dehydrated is total nonsense. The doctor explained it to me like this: we (most of us) don’t need to remind ourselves to go to the bathroom. Our bladder expands; that tells our brain it’s time to go and we do. No alarms needed. Same with eating (again to most people): our stomach shrinks, hormones are released, and we feel hungry. (This gets more complicated because obviously we eat when we don’t always need to, but hunger is based in physiology.)


Thirst is the same way. We have two real-time mechanisms that our bodies use to regulate thirst, in our hearts and in our cells. This all made sense to me, until I remembered that I also often forget to eat. This, she says, is because people often don’t know when they are actually hungry. Food is so abundant that we have the ability to inhale a cinnamon roll because it smells good, without consulting our stomachs first. Combine that with living in a society where people are expected to go go go, means that people, myself included, don’t have the skill of knowing their own bodies.


Dr. Hew-Butler isn’t the first person to come up with this. Mindful eating is a very popular way to lose weight, because it works pretty well. Only eat when you’re hungry, then stop when you’re not hungry anymore. The trick to this is constantly paying attention to how you’re feeling, which is VERY DIFFICULT. I tried it this week in prep for this article.


The difference between food and water is that drinking too much water probably won’t hurt you, because you’ll pee out any excess. So why do I even care enough to write this article? There are three reasons:

  1. Did I mention that bottled water is a $15 billion scam?
  2. No one likes having to pee every hour.
  3. Dr. Hew-Butler’s research is in hyponatremia, aka not having enough salt in your blood. This happens when you sweat a lot but don’t replace your salt, and it can lead to headaches and cramps, and in really bad cases, comas. The advice to constantly drink water can lead to serious medical conditions in people who don’t know their bodies but do endurance activities like marathons and Iron Man races. If you do those things, you should read her research here.


Thank you, dear readers, for going with me on this journey of understanding. I think I have come to a conclusion: I am going to keep using my two hour alarms, but instead of drinking a glass of water every time it beeps, I’m going to take a minute and truly listen to what my body is telling me. Unless it tells me it needs a cinnamon roll because I then I know it’s lying to me.

About The Author

Just a girl who has a lot of feelings about planetary science

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