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What Does Being Hydrated Even Mean? Myths And Facts About Water

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Toronto chapter.

Edited by Sophia Savva

I’d be lying if I said my recent winter semester kicked my ass when it came to all-nighters and studying for finals. I remember one of the things I often heard around my design studio, along with “you got this” and “good luck” was “make sure to drink water”.

Those phrases reminded me of the huge bottles students would bring with them to campus to remind themselves to drink water. I remember seeing life hacks that tried to make remembering to drink water easier, vague facts about the benefits of drinking water constantly (it makes your skin better! It prevents cramps!), and being encouraged that yes, peeing constantly was a sign that I will make it through finals.

After watching Adam Ruins Everything’s video on why don’t need 8 cups of water a day, it got me thinking about what other myths about water drinking we just took as fact and never decided to properly investigate.

Clear Pee Doesn’t Always Mean Good

There’s this spoken rule of thumb that you should drink enough water throughout the day to consistently have clear urine. But when you think about it, isn’t urinating meant to release the waste in your body? Well, yes! Let’s take a look at what actually happens with your body to pass waste.

The urinary tract is comprised of the kidneys, the ureters, the bladder, and the urethra. Throughout the day, blood is filtered through your kidneys to remove waste, minerals, salts, sugars, and other chemical byproducts. Some sugars are reabsorbed into the blood which remains in the kidneys while everything else becomes urine, which passes through the kidneys, down the ureters, and into the bladder. The bladder is essentially a holding tank for the urine, where it sits until expelled through the urethra

Drinking so much water that your pee is clear can actually cause an imbalance of electrolyte levels, the ionized constituents that help regulate the amount of water in and around your cells. This imbalance of water and sodium in your blood can lead to hyponatremia or low blood sodium. When your body’s water levels rise and the sodium in your body becomes diluted, your cells begin to swell, causing health problems ranging from nausea and headaches to restlessness and muscle weakness. More severe cases of hyponatremia, specifically acute hyponatremia where sodium levels drop rapidly, can have potentially dangerous effects such as rapid brain swelling that can result to coma and death.

Obviously I’m talking about the most extreme cases, however, hyponatremia is listed as a very common condition, with more than 3 million US cases per year. Hyponatremia is most associated with ultra-endurance sports due to endurance athletes consuming large amounts of water while losing sodium through sweat, making them at a greater risk. It goes to show how drinking too much water constantly can do.

So what colour of pee is considered normal? Dr Chris Steele on ITV’s This Morning explains what each shade of pee tells us about our body, and suggests looking at the “colour in the stream you’re passing, not when it’s in the toilet bowl, because it gets diluted in two litres of water.” He also advises remembering what foods, drinks, and medications we may have had before urinating, as they also play an important role in the colour of urine. Ideally, the colour you should be aiming for is a light yellow, which represents a healthy bacterial environment favourable to the urinary tract system. Of course, water helps with maintaining a healthy urinary tract system, and the deeper the yellow in your urine, the more dehydrated your body is.

8 Cups A Day Isn’t Actually That Great Anyway

So how much water should you drink throughout the day? Everyone has heard the eight cups a day shpiel, whcih has been accepted as the average water intake per day by “hydration calculators” and apps.

But where does this value come from? 8 cups come out to about two liters, which is a lot when keeping in mind that the average human stomach is around the size of a balled fist when unexpanded. In fact, there is little to no scientific research that specifically says 8 cups is the recommended amount. The closest claim to this comes at the end of a book by Frederick J. Stare and Dr. Margaret McWilliams in 1974, in a section after discussing various aspect of nutrition, which recommended “…for the average adult, somewhere around 6 to 8 glasses per 24 hours and this can be in the form of coffee, tea, milk, soft drinks, beer, etc. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of water.” The passage seemed like an afterthought in the book, yet due to Dr. Stare’s leading position in the field of nutrition, this may have been the origins of the “8 cups of 8 fluid ounces” shpiel.

Even so, the passage, however brief, does state that you can obtain this water from coffee or fruit. So where did this sudden transition to drinking straight water come from?

Hydration for Health was an initiative to promote drinking water. They promoted healthy hydration “as an integral part of public health nutritional guidelines and routine patient counseling so people can make informed choices… Healthcare professionals should be encouraged to talk with patients about the calorific content of SSBs [sugar sweetened beverages] when discussing lifestyle modification to manage overweight and/or obesity . . . Consumption of water in preference to other beverages should be highlighted as a simple step towards healthier hydration…recommending 1.5 to 2 litres of water daily is the simplest and healthiest hydration advice you can give”.

Why was there such a vested interest in getting people to become more hydrated? Surely an initiative aiming to make people more healthy? Well, not quite. Turns out Hydration for Health was sponsored and created by Danone, a company that produces Volvic, Evian, and Badoit bottled waters. It’s no surprise that such initiatives promote drinking water, so consumers buy their water products to ensure that they stay hydrated.

This culture of hydrated = healthy has become so prevalent in our society that it can be seen everywhere. Bottled water sales have begun to surpass carbonated drink sales, and drink companies commission research to find out why people should drink their product–research by a water company even stated that drinking water can cure diabetes. This “research” gets pretty silly when you start looking at who is funding said research, so maybe we don’t have to stress so much when we don’t reach our 8 cups goal every day.

So how much water is it recommended that we drink? When we include all the other liquids we consume throughout the day, such as from fruits, vegetables, and soda, we actually go over the recommended two liters. Obviously, drinking water is recommended over your coffees and sodas, but maybe don’t be so hard on yourself when that’s not the only thing you have during the day.

Listen To Your Body: Drink When You Feel Thirsty

I remember one of my exes a couple of years ago telling me that if I felt thirsty, then I’m already dehydrated, and that I should aim for never “feeling thirsty”. After learning about evolution and how specific bodily mechanisms were developed to help us survive in my university courses, that saying started to seem like bullshit.

Just like we shiver to keep our bodies warm or adrenaline is released into our blood stream when faced with fight-or-flight situations, feeling thirsty is just another way for our body to tell us it needs something.

A study by Michael Farrell of the Biomedicine Discover Institute at Monash University in Australia found that the right prefrontal cortex actually ‘overrides’ swallowing excess water that the body doesn’t need, and participants in the study who were asked to drink water when they were not thirsty (i.e not exercising) found it three times more difficult to drink water than after exercise, and they evidently had to overcome some sort of resistance when drinking water. After taking MRIs of the participants, the scientists found that areas of the right prefrontal cortex of the brain showed “significantly higher activity when participants had to make an effort to swallow the water”. We’ve already discussed how drinking too much water can be harmful, so how about we try listening to our bodies from now on. Experts say that we should use our “innate thirst mechanism to guide fluid consumption”. So again, don’t stress about it.

The Bottled Vs. Tap Debate

Now I’ve heard both sides of the argument for this through word of mouth. “Bottled water is so expensive”, “tap water is bad for you”, all that fun stuff.

“But no one should think that bottled water is better regulated, better protected or safer than tap,” says Eric Goldstein, co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting health and the environment.

Let’s start with where it comes from. Ever noticed that some brands of water taste different from others? Weird how something tasteless can still have taste, right?

It turns out that in general, bottled water comes either from “spring water” or municipal water supply, or simply treated tap water. About 55% of bottled water in the United States is spring water, which leaves 45% coming from treated tap water from companies such as Aquafina and Dasani. While this seems innocent at first, it turns out that big-name companies are using California as their main source for their brand, a state that is literally facing a drought as we speak.

What’s crazier is that 80% of the state’s water supply goes toward agriculture, and the tiny fraction goes to these big brands in addition to the other bottled drink brands utilizing California. So why are they sucking California dry? The defense for brands using California’s sources is that it’s associated with the brand, but they “continue to seek ways to reduce overall water use”. Companies aren’t required to label where specifically they source their water, so companies exploiting Alaskan water systems can get away with saying “pure glacier water”.

I always found it odd when my friends would pay and carry a huge pack of water to their rooms as water supply, but I can understand their concern. Whether tap water would be any better than bottled water is also a vague matter. In Canada, there are roughly 1,000 “boil-water advisories – warnings from public health authorities that tap water is unsafe to drink, that poses a risk to cause illness or transmit disease”. Apparently, there is no standard way of conveying warnings about drinking water safely as the availability of information varies between, provinces, regions, and local health units.

More than 300,000 Canadians contract an acute stomach bug every year from the current municipally-supplied water in out taps, and this research concludes people are still getting their drinking water from subpar municipal and private systems. It is suggested that more municipalities look into implementing fail-safe treatment barriers to keep water safe for drinking. Despite all this, the risk of getting sick in Canadian tap water still remains relatively low and shouldn’t scare you from filling your bottle from the tap. If you’re super worried still though, I would definitely recommend researching for water filters to make you feel more at ease when you keep hydrated.

Now I hope all this myth-busting didn’t steer you away from hydrating yourself (after all the research I did for this piece, I totally feel you). Just because some of the things you’ve been told most of your life only have a grain of truth in it, that shouldn’t mean you should avoid water forever. Water still remains a dominant component in your body, and drinking water, or any liquid for that matter, is a good way to keep your body intact. But of course, don’t hesitate to research where your things come from, and think twice who you’re buying from.


Architecture History and Design Double Major and Environmental Geography Minor at the University of Toronto