Ah, water. The most constructive and destructive force in nature. Too much and it will destroy your life (hurricanes, sinkholes, floods). Too little and it will, well, destroy your life (drought, wild fires). It’s all about balance. The human body just can’t live without it.
Dehydration is a danger to everyone in the summer, but especially for those with chronic conditions. It can cause, worsen, or be a symptom of heart disease, hypoalbuminemia (too much albumin in the blood), hyper-/hypothyroidism, cancers requiring a certain course of chemo (cisplatin), and my own lovely monsters, diabetes and kidney disease. If I’m outside too long, I’m dehydrated. If I travel on a plane, I’m dehydrated. If I get sick to my stomach, I’m dehydrated. If my blood sugar is high, I am dehydrated. Around 66% of adult bodies are water, and if we don’t replenish what we use, it can make our conditions worse.
Every year, there is a host of articles warning about the dangers of dehydration, especially in the summer. But what happens if you actually get dehydrated?
Dehydration is a sneaky little devil. Even a little imbalance can cause you to feel spacey and clumsy. Inside your body, your blood thickens, which makes it slow and sluggish, so your heart rate rises. Your body starts conserving water for the most necessary tasks like blood flow and cell function. By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
And it’s not just a matter of being thirsty. Cottonmouth, unexplained exhaustion, and not needing to pee for an unusually long time are all pretty well-known symptoms. But in my experience, dehydration can also cause headaches/migraines, muscle cramps, and a weird, extended numbness in your extremities, like your hand fell asleep and won’t wake up when you shake it. That time I didn’t hydrate properly for exercise, I had the worst cramps I have ever felt. I felt it coming, and just wanted to finish the last few minutes. By the time I got off the treadmill and grabbed water, I couldn’t even sit up straight. I felt nauseated as I slowly sipped water. It didn’t let up completely until over 20 minutes had passed, and that was in an indoor, controlled environment. I have never made that mistake again.
How do you treat it?
Sometimes it’s not as simple as drinking a glass of water.
Water is great, but it may not be the best or fastest treatment, at least by itself. There is a reason “smart” drinks and sports drinks are popular with athletes. They have electrolytes. Electrolytes are a collection of salts -- calcium, magnesium, potassium, and plain old table salt – that help regulate water flow in and out of your cells. A banana can help (but not too much – too much potassium can mess with your heart) and if you don’t have one of those enhanced options close when you need it, you can add salt and/or lemon juice to tap water. There is also Pedialyte, which comes in popsicles!
While you are treating dehydration, you also might want to avoid caffeine, alcohol, sugary drinks (and foods), and anything overly salty, like soy sauce, as they will just work against you.
In the most extreme cases – you can’t tear yourself away from the bathroom due to one end or the other – it’s time to visit the emergency room or urgent care center. They can hook you up, literally. A few hours on IV saline (diabetics out there, make sure it’s the kind without glucose), can work miracles.
Even when you start feeling better with treatment, don’t be fooled. When I asked my doctor about it last time I had this issue, he said that it takes a day or two to recover completely. Don’t be surprised if you are completely wiped out for one or two days.
Of course, the best treatment is no treatment at all. It’s prevention, like all those articles tell you. Keep a bottle of water with you if you’re going to be outside (especially in the summer heat) or away from somewhere you can easily get a drink. Throw a few bottles in your car or your bag. Your body will thank you for it.