Water. What do you think of when you hear that word?
Maybe water as playtime. We’re lucky in Michigan to have such abundance of it nearby to use in this way. What about habitat? Our oceans, lakes, rivers and even little ponds are home to hundreds of species. Water is primary in some occupations – farmers and fire fighters rely on a regular supply of water. It is a universal solvent – our oldest and most common cleaning agent! Water is an ecological concern here and around the world where there is not enough water and where the water is unclean and so unusable. Water is a major source of weather – clouds, hurricanes, tsunamis, rain, sleet and snow! And, water is a great source of healing - and has been for millennia – both internally and externally.
Obviously, water plays a very important role in our lives today, as it has over the centuries for humans and even more centuries for other living creatures. When we look for signs of life, or the possibility of life, on other planets, we look for water. Water IS life. But in most of the US, we tend to take it for granted – really only noticing if there’s a dry spell that has us and our gardens wishing for rain, or a storm of rain that spoils an outdoor wedding or snaps a tree branch taking out the electricity in our neighborhood. In the spaces between too little and too much we tend to mostly forget about this wonderful elixir of life.
Water on the Earth
A little background that you probably already know, or have heard – just to review. About 70% of the earth is covered in water. Nearly 98% of the water here is saltwater, so only around 2% is fresh water that’s available for our use. And of that 2%, almost 70% of THAT is frozen in the ice caps! So out of the 326 million trillion gallons of water, only some thousands of trillions of gallons are usable to us here on land. And our earth is essentially a closed system – water's cycle of on earth, evaporating into the sky, condensing again and falling back to earth has been going on since the beginning. Basically, all the water that’s ever been here is still here. The water you bathe in could have been bath water for a dinosaur or Cleopatra. The living system of earth is the original recycling center! The salt water oceans are important habitats for many creatures and play a big role in weather on land, but we’re not going to focus attention tonight on this part of the water picture. Instead, we’ll narrow it down to those thousand of trillions gallons of fresh water.
Water in the Body
Like the earth, a large percentage of our bodies is water – about 70%. It’s interesting to note that an infant’s percentage is about 80%. The brain itself is said to be about 85% water. We have water inside our cells – intracellular – and outside them – extracellular. Our blood is about 50% water. What’s the purpose of all this water?
Most obviously, the water inside and outside our cells and in the blood acts as a solvent and a transportation system – carrying all sorts of things from one place to another in the body –nutrients, minerals, hormones and other chemical messengers, waste products. Water helps regulate our body temperature. Water is also a necessary component of several chemical reactions that happen in the body – including the production of our cellular energy. It is also involved in the hydroelectric production of energy as it flows through the cell membranes. Water is a cushioning device within cells and various cellular compartments. But with our increasing ability to study cellular activity beyond a relatively simple chemical equation, it is becoming more clear that water plays a more critical role in many ways. The presence of water – or more clearly, perhaps – the LACK of adequate water diminishes the efficiency of other components in the cells – proteins and enzymes that are responsible for a particular activity. Studies seem to show this happens both at the cell membrane and also deep inside the cell. These are obviously important functions and the body has several complex mechanisms in place that regulate the flow, distribution, retention and excretion of water.
Water and Health
This is a broad topic - much more involved than I can address here. But please do some reading about the areas I just mention if you're interested. Clean water is the first need for health. Across the world according to Water.org, 1 in 9 people do not have access to clean water. This is literally a life and death matter for many. The increase in life expectancy in the 1930s and 40s in the U.S. can be partly attributed to improved sanitation. We are fortunate to have this readily available.
Even with our ready access to clean water, many of us do not drink enough in the day, walking around in a state of mild dehydration much of the time. When we don’t have the ideal amount of water, the body swings into a regulatory conservation mode that shuttles the available water to the most critical areas of the body. This makes perfect sense, of course, as it’s what the body does in any emergency situation – it sacrifices ideal health in a non-vital part of the body in order to sustain those things that actually keep us living. For example, we sacrifice bits of water from inside the cells to keep the brain swimming. The kidneys kick up their water retention abilities and decrease the output of urine to preserve water. Remember that we never do one thing to the body that doesn’t have reactions throughout – whether they’re intended or not. So changing fluid levels in the body impact the blood pressure, which impacts circulation in general and heart function. Decreasing urine output leaves more toxic substances in the body floating around with the potential to do damage. And if having less water is also decreasing the function of all those cells that have given up their portion of water to the greater good – then we have the potential for damage, or at least inefficiency, in every single function of the body.
At a 2% water loss, our temperature regulation systems start to be less efficient, as well as our endurance and heart function. Higher than 2% loss impacts mental functioning, alertness, strength – and this is in regularly healthy people. In the elderly and children, and in those with health problems, physical changes, difficulties AND significant threats to health and even life, can come at lower levels, or show themselves in all sorts of different ways – pain, confusion, shortness of breath. Under severe stresses, a loss of 25% of body water is possible, but may be fatal.
How Much Water?
The million dollar question! Unfortunately, there isn’t an absolute rule for this. Instead, like in many situations, the answer is, it depends! It depends on how much water you LOSE a day. Everyone in general loses about 800 ml, or about 3.5 cups of water/day in what’s called “insensible” loss – which just means that we don’t notice it – we can’t “sense” it. This happens through the skin and through the respiratory tract as we breathe. This fluid loss does NOT include the loss of electrolytes. Then we have loss through sweating. The amount we lose in sweat is extremely variable, depending on how much we’re exercising, how hot it is, how used we are to the temperature and the exercise and some genetic tendencies play into this as well. It’s believed that the maximum sweat rate is about 50 ml/min - about ¼ cup – but this rate cannot be maintained for long. And then we lose water in our urine. On a physiological basis, this amount depends on how much solute – stuff that’s dissolved in the urine – needs to be eliminated from the body. The range considered “normal” is 800 – 2000 ml/day – or 3.5-8.5 cups – with an average of about 1500 ml – so closer to the top of that range.
So what do we need for intake? The governmental people that set the Recommended Daily Intakes of vitamins are also in the water intake advice business and they say 3.7 liters for adult men and 2.7 liters for adult women. Of course, this isn’t taking any individualized information for anyone into account. There are some other physiological ways to estimate water needs. One is based on your metabolic rate – which is likely to be the most accurate, but most people don’t know their actual metabolic rate. There is also a formula based on your body surface area – another thing that most of us don’t really know! – but obviously is going to recommend more water for a larger person than a smaller one. The easiest one to figure out, and the one that I use as a general rule of thumb to suggest is half your body weight in ounces. Most of us DO know how much we weigh and can divide by two! Your body’s metabolic chemical processes actually make you about a cup and a half of water a day, so it's a start, but not nearly enough!
What Kind of Water?
Another big question! If our water supply is so clean, what's the deal with filters and systems and bottles, right? If you are unfamiliar with the background of the bottled water industry, I encourage you to do some research. The documentary Tapped is available on Netflix and Hulu and is a good, if horrifying, place to start. Besides the ecological, economical and political issues with bottled water, there are real health concerns with the plastic contamination of bottled water.
I do recommend filtering water as a rule. While city water is SAFE to drink as far as it’s not going to cause some bacterial illness, not all the things left in the water are completely benign. Chemical contaminants are often found in water. Some of this comes from the processing itself (like chlorine), some comes from the water source. These contaminants include chemicals from pesticides, insecticides & fertilizers, run-off from different manufacturing and farming sources. A rather new concern is pharmaceutical drugs that people flush down the toilet. Most water treatment plants aren’t set up to remove these kinds of materials from the water. While the EPA and others confirm that this stuff is IN the water and there is some study and speculation about the possible harm to human health, no long term studies have been done proving such a thing.
A note about distilled water. There are pro and anti distilled drinking water camps. Distilled water is definitely “purer” than tap or other water – the this is the large argument of the pro-camp. The distillation process boils water, collecting the steam and then cooling it back into water. This removes the minerals in the water, but not necessarily all the other chemical stuff. Distilled water is used in chemical experiments, in various machinery and mechanical applications where the presence of minerals might interact or eventually clutter up equipment. But in places where they use desalination plants to make sea water drinkable, there are generally requirements to add minerals back into the water. There is some evidence that the minerals in our drinking water might be good for us – a few studies have shown less cardiovascular disease in areas with harder rather than softer water. If you want to use distilled water, you might consider mineral supplementation. We tend to be low on minerals these days anyway because of the general depletion in our soil, and so in our food supply – and because of our increased stress loads that increase the body’s demand for them.
Water as Healer
Water has been used as a healing tool for centuries. Water is amazingly effective, but is pretty low-tech and I think that’s probably part of the reason it’s not used as much in conventional medicine anymore. We seem to prefer bells and whistles. The treatments also might be a little labor and time intensive – and insurance doesn’t pay for time! So except for the ice baths of sports injuries, we don’t see a lot of hydrotherapies used anymore. But there are many, many water treatments you can use at home safely and with great benefit. Here are some ways to get started.
Baths – whole baths, foot baths, alternating (hot/cold) baths, neutral baths. Warm water with Epsom salts for sore muscles, different essential oils for relaxation. Alternating baths are used for pain and swelling in different areas of the body – by using first a hot plunge, then a cold one – for whatever area is the problem. If you have tennis elbow or carpal tunnel, filling 2 containers of hot and cold water will facilitate this. Neutral baths are whole body baths at essential body temperature. This is calming and restorative.
Heating Compresses stimulate blood flow, which increases the nutrition that gets to every part of the body AND helps eliminate the garbage from all over as well. It stimulates the immune system and can be rejuvenating to your whole self. My go-to recommendation for when you feel like you're coming down with something is Warming Socks. At bedtime, take a pair of cotton socks, soak them in cold tap water and wring them out really well. Put them on and then put on a pair of wool socks on top and go to bed. You’ll warm the socks up and even dry them out overnight and stimulate your immune system in the process! I know it sounds crazy, but it works! Be sure your feet are warm first. If they're not, soak in a warm foot bath for a few minutes before adding the cold socks.
Steams are great for all things respiratory –sinus problems, basic colds, coughs, chest congestion. Hot water in a bowl with a towel of your head! The addition of essential oils or herbs adds a punch of medicine, but just the steam works too. Always be careful not to scald yourself with the steam – it’s way hotter than water – so be careful.
Irrigations – 2 basic ones, top and bottom! The neti pot is a fabulous help for sinus problems. Rinsing the nasal cavity helps clear away irritants, bacteria, pollens and the like while also keeping the passages moist. They’re not used much anymore, but enemas have been used as treatment in a number of conditions including pain and inflammation, besides constipation.
Give Water Some Love Back!
This precious resource is in jeopardy in many places. It feels so automatic to us here, we forget to be grateful for each drop rushing out of our tap and we let it rush out in often wasteful measure. Take some time to really relish the water you use, and save where you can. Consider getting a metal or glass bottle and refill your own bottles every day instead of buying new plastic ones. Choose less water-intensive plants for your yard and garden. Join us in our education and fundraising efforts in this quarter's Sowing Circle, supporting Water.org.