Update March 2015 — Due to how many of you read this article and left comments and questions, I’ve expanded the research and have written more about drinking water and how it affects your heath here: www.explainedhealth.com. Be sure to stop by some time after you read this article!
Recently, I realized that I’ve been feeling pretty dehydrated no matter how much I drank, and was feeling an overall lack of energy and clear thinking. Part of this is due to it being winter. Another part is being active most nights of the week in one sport or another and sweating out my body’s water. But then part of me started thinking that why, no matter how much water I drink, am I always thirsty?
So I started researching everything about water and the body. From most of my questions, I found some answers, and other questions provided some pretty basic answers that didn’t get me anywhere.
I’ve set this up below in the form of questions with the answers I found. Hopefully at least one of these will answer something you’ve been wondering, or at least make you smarter. Feel free to astonish your friends with knowing more than them on this subject.
How long does it take to absorb water into the body?
I first started wondering how long after a drink of water does it take to enter the body’s system. I know that you should drink ’8 glasses a day’, but if you’re feeling dehydrated, how long does it really take for that first mouthfull of water to help?
Well the answer varies greatly depending on a lot of conditions. Water can literally start entering your system within seconds, but on a more localized level, starting in your mouth. Then the majority of water is absorbed in the large intestine, after being let out of the stomach.
But here is where the aforementioned ’conditions’ are in play. If you drink water on an empty stomach, it can pass through the stomach into the large intestine and enter your bloodstream within 5 minutes(especially if the water is colder, compared to warm!). But, if you’re eating while drinking the water, you may have to wait upwards of 45 minutes before the water is passed into the intestines because the stomach must digest the food first. Overall, on average, it takes from 5 minutes to a total of 120 minutes for water to fully absorb into your bloodstream from the time of drinking. The University of Montreal did a study poetically called “Pharmacokinetic analysis of absorption, distribution and disappearance of ingested water labeled with D₂O in humans.” which has graphs and timelines explaining their study if you like that kind of stuff.
So when you’re very thirsty and somewhat dehydrated, especially after something like cardio-heavy sports, drink water first then eat, or else your body will be dehydrated longer.
On a side note, not all water you drink is fully absorbed into your system, especially if you drink a lot of water. Much of it is flushed out in your urine, and some in your stool. If you want an interesting read on water’s involvement in your bowels, the University of Michigan has a Bowel Function Anatomy.
How can the body absorb more water?
So if we’re drinking enough, yet still feeling dehydrated, how can we ensure our bodies absorb more water?
Well there are two main schools of thought here.
First is to ensure you have enough salt in your body. Though over-consumption of salt isn’t good, not having enough is bad as well. People who play a lot of cardio-heavy sports, or do a lot of running, lose a lot of salt via sweat, and it needs to be gained back. Salt is used in the body to retain water in cells, along with helping get nutrients from the small intestine, and if we don’t have enough salt in the body, your cells can’t retain enough water. This causes the cells to dehydrate.
The second idea to ensure we keep enough water in the body, is to eat fibrous foods. Fiber in foods will help your body retain water in the intestines, where it is slowly absorbed. This means that instead of just passing through fast, it’ll take its time and your body can use all the water it can.
Can we absorb water in ways other than drinking?
In short, no. In a more detailed answer, kind of but not really.
There are a lot of curious people on the internet asking if water can be absorbed via the skin, like if you take a long shower or bath.
While you can absorb things like minerals, nutrients and chemicals through the skin, your epidermis is literally made to be water resistant. This means that no matter how long you stay submerged in water, you’re not really pulling in the water into your system.
But what about when you get all wrinkly in the bath? Well that has to do with the most outer layers of skin cells, the stratum corneum, which is essentially dead cells. These dead cells soak up the water, causing them to bloat and wrinkle the skin, but the water really doesn’t get anywhere past them. So your 1 hour baths can still make you thirsty.
I drink lots of water but still feel thirsty!
This happens to a lot of people. Some research groups have calculated that about 95% of North Americans are constantly dehydrated. Normally trying to drink the right amount of water every day can fix this (side note: the ‘correct’ amount of water for you is half your weight in ounces, meaning a 150lb person should drink 75 ounces per day, equal to 2.25 liters), but most people don’t drink that much.
As mentioned above, you can do a few things to keep more water in your body, but drinking the right amount constantly is the best solution.
If you follow those steps, keep yourself hydrated but still feel thirsty all the time, there could be some more serious conditions present, like onset diabetes or something called Adrenal Fatigue, which means your adrenal glands aren’t working properly. If thirst continues, even after days of drinking right, definitely see a doctor.
So what are the best ways to drink water for healthy bodies?
1) Slow and steady
Its been proven that drinking water slowly throughout the day makes you more hydrated than drinking lots fast. This makes sense as your intestines can only process so much water at a time, and if it is passed through too fast, you’ll lose out on it.
2) With additives
I’m not talking about adding koolaid or tang, but lemon. Lemon in water has well known health benefits, including aiding your digestion, hydrating your lymph system, has a load of nutrients including potassium and vitamin C, reduces inflammation and gives you an energy boost. It is a common practice to drink warm water with 1/2 a lemon squeezed into it first thing in the morning, then after about 30 minutes have your breakfast. This process is supposed to improve your energy, cleanse your system and provide a better digestion for your breakfast, which can give you energy throughout the day.
2b) A way to have great tasting, healthy water available when you’re home is to use a water pitcher with an infuser. This simple device can be kept in your fridge and infuses your water with whatever you put in it, like fruit, without having the pieces of fruit fall into your glass. For example, adding lemons and cucumber slices will give you a healthy drink that tastes great. There’s a great recipe for a healthy, anti-bloating water-infused drink from two well known nutritionists.
Since we now know that most water is absorbed within 120 minutes, we can assume that drinking a glass of water about 2 hours before heavy sports will give us the best benefit, as your body will be the most hydrated then.
It is also best to drink a glass of water first thing in the morning, since you’ve gone for about 8 hours without a drink. And for those with a stronger bladder, drinking a glass before bed helps your body stay hydrated while you sleep. But if nightly bathroom visits are already a factor for you, take it easy before bed.
To make drinking water easier, keep it by you all day, whether at the office with a bottle that you sip from all day and can refill, or at home with a glass of water on your counter that you make yourself drink from every time you pass it. Having a bottle of water in your car is great too, especially when you’re out doing chores and can’t get a good drink in for a few hours.
We also know from above that drinking while eating isn’t a good idea, as it can slow your digestion and doesn’t help your body until your stomach finally digests all food. So take a drink 30 mins before a meal and you’ll be feeling good.
So what should I take from this?
Getting the most out of water comes down to these three parts.
First, drink enough. Know how much you should drink and make sure you do it every day.
Second, add to the water. Whether its lemons or cucumbers or a simple mint leaf for flavoring.
Third, drink at the right time. Know that a glass of water 30 mins before a meal will help more than a glass during!