Dehydration is an epidemic in this country; in fact, less than 1% of people we’ve tested are properly hydrated when they first come into our office. It’s especially hard to stay hydrated in the winter (especially in a climate like the upper Midwest!), so here are some strategies to get and stay hydrated during the winter months.

Hydration and Health

Hydration is something we hear a lot about, but it isn’t honestly something most people pay much attention to. Even for those that do, the thought of getting hydrated usually begins and end with drinking “enough” water during the day. This has led to an epidemic of dehydration, with substantial health consequences.

Proper hydration is involved in almost every facet of human health. In fact, every single chemical reaction in the body depends in some way on water, so in order for the body to perform at it’s very best, a person must be properly hydrated.

For example, proper immune function depends on hydration. Being dehydrated causes a stress response in the body that will increase inflammation, decrease the removal of toxins/wastes and increase the likelihood of illness. In fact, one of the reasons that people get sick more often in the winter is that the humidity is much lower (especially in places with below zero temperatures). Lower humidity means more water loss through the skin, which leads to greater dehydration (more on that in a little bit). The respiratory tract depends upon proper hydration to maintain an effective barrier to infections. Dehydration dramatically increases the ability of viruses and other pathogens to adhere to and pass through the respiratory tract, which can lead to more colds and flus.

Thus, for many reasons, we have to maintain proper hydration.

How to Get & Stay Hydrated

Especially in the winter, it is imperative to drink water throughout the day. The big question is “how much?” For most people, a good place to start is to consume one-half their body weight in ounces every day. So a 150 lb person would need to consume ~75 oz of water daily (in addition to any water lost through sweating).

The real key when it comes to water consumption is when and how often you drink water. Studies have shown that under normal circumstances, the cells of the human body can only absorb the equivalent of 2-4 oz. of water in about 20-30 minutes, with any additional water being excreted. This means that a person needs to space their water intake out over the course of an entire day, aiming for 2-4 oz every half hour or so (note: the amount absorbed can increase dramatically during/after periods of intense sweating, so drinking more at these times and/or using an electrolyte replacement drink is definitely a good idea). Anything non-caloric (that doesn’t contain caffeine or other irritants), like herbal tea, has the same hydrating benefits as pure water.

Besides drinking sufficient water throughout the day, the next most important tool we can use to stay hydrated in the winter is a humidifier. We lose a LOT more water in the winter months, especially when the weather turns cold (i.e., below zero). This is because as the temperature drops, so does the humidity, as all the water in the air freezes and falls to the ground. And the humidity can drop a lot: it is not atypical for the humidity to fall to 10-12% with sub-zero temperatures. As the humidity falls, the amount of water lost through our skin goes up dramatically. I have seen reports stating that the average person can lose up to one quart of water per day more in the winter than in the summer, due mostly to the low humidity. Therefore, if we can raise the humidity in our home and place of work (if they are different) we can substantially decease the amount of water we lose each day, making it easier to become and stay hydrated. We have found that a humidity of 40-45% works well to keep enough moisture in the air to help with dehydration, but not so much to prevent condensation on your windows.

The last thing a person can do to improve hydration is to consume plenty of fruits and vegetables (vegetables that grow above the ground), as they contain a LOT of water. The problem is that most people don’t feel like eating fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter. Instead, we reach for lots of cooked foods that have very little water in them – think bread, pasta, meat, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, potatoes, cereal – you get the picture.

The good news is that you can get all the hydrating benefits of eating fresh vegetables (i.e., water and minerals/electrolytes) by incorporating them into soups. Yes, heating vegetables destroys some of the vitamins and most of the enzymes in vegetables, but the water, fiber and all the minerals remain. So add as many fresh vegetables and fruits as you can into your diet and enjoy a nice, warm bowl of soup for at least one meal a day to help warm you up and keep you hydrated.

Getting and staying hydrated in the winter is no easy task when the temperatures fall below freezing, but it can be done. Incorporate the few suggestions above and you will feel, look and be much healthier.