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Back in 1992, an Iranian doctor named F. Batmanghelidj wrote a book entitled Your Body's Many Cries For Water. An immediate bestseller, the book persuaded many American readers that dehydration was somehow the cause of every disease, and the most important thing people could do to stay healthy was to drink water until they sloshed.

Batmanghelidj had invented his version of a water cure out of simple necessity. During the Shah's reign, he had been imprisoned by the state police. In his crowded cell block, there were many people who were not getting any medical care at all. He didn't have access to even the simplest medications. Finally, Batmanghelidj started prescribing one thing he could get, extra water.

To the doctor's amazement, his patients started getting better. Water, he concluded, must be the key to good health. Batmanghelidj promoted water as treatment all over the world until his death at the age of 71.

My personal philosophy about this sort of thing is that if a fad cure actually makes people better, or seems to make them better, and it doesn't keep them from getting medical treatment they still actually need, cost a lot of money, or cause side effects, there is no reason to criticize it. That doesn't mean, however, that water actually cures anything other than dehydration, and sometimes not even that. 

We all absolutely have to have water, and we all get very sick without it very quickly, but what was really going on in the Iranian prison, I think, was a phenomenon called regression to the mean. 

People sometimes get better no matter what you or don't do. Similarly, people sometimes get worse, no matter what you do or don't do. When people get better we naturally like to give ourselves credit. When they get worse, it must be the disease.

When Is Dehydration Likely To Occur?

  • One possibility is decreased intake. You simply can't get enough water. This is most likely to occur in hot, dry conditions, but it's possible to become dehydrated in the middle of the dead of winter.
  • Another possibility is "shifts" in water. Suppose you take some kind of medication that modifies how your body uses sodium. If a drug keeps sodium inside your cells, water will flow out of your bloodstream into the cells inside a tissue to dilute it. Holistic physicians usually describe this phenomenon as the "partitioning" of water. This can also occur after a long period of successful dieting, especially if you have a relatively high-carb diet. Burning carbohydrates also shifts sodium inside your cells and causes them to swell. It takes time, and the right amount of sodium in your diet (which ironically may be more, not less) for the water to move out into your bloodstream.
  • Sometimes your body literally springs a leak. This happens in severe burns, in crushing injuries, and in sepsis. You drink water, but your body needs more than usual.
  • Sometimes the problem is excessive loss of water, either by diarrhea or increased urination. Even now, millions of children die each year die from dehydration caused by diarrhea.

When you are truly dehydrated, your body needs more than just water. You need electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and, yes, hard as it may be for many to believe, sugar) in the water you drink. Pure water doesn't contain the electrolytes. Milk, juice, ginger ale, and chicken broth don't contain enough of both the potassium and sodium your body needs, and milk, juice, and ginger ale contain too much sugar. You need to get fluid into your body that stays in your bloodstream with a product like Rehydralyte, Pedialyte, or Infalyte

If you can't find or you can't afford these products, then the next best thing is a mixture of a teaspoon (5 grams) each of sugar and salt (the small amount of sugar is OK) in a liter water, followed by a small glass (no more than about 60 ml or one-quarter cup) of milk or juice for potassium.

Adults who aren't sick can usually do well on just 1 to 1.5 liters (5 or 6 cups) of water a day. Of course, if you live in a hot climate, you may need a lot more. Unless you have congestive heart failure or kidney disease, the often-recommended eight glasses of water a day won't hurt you, but it won't help you, either.

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