In the late 1970’s we were told to drink 3-4 glasses of water a day. Over the decades, this amount has been steadily increasing. First to six glasses, then to eight and ten. Some people now even advocate drinking 3 litres of water per day! All sorts of claims and benefits are attributed to turning yourself into a water bag. Drinking copious amounts of water is supposed to suppress the appetite and promote weight loss, prevent dehydration headaches, flush out bacteria through the urine and moisturise the skin. But does it?
Is it possible that drinking too much water is actually not good for you?
Let’s first look at the imbalance of thirst from a traditional Chinese medicine diagnostic perspective. During a consultation with a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, one of the questions that is always asked is; how thirsty is the patient?
Further questions should then be asked in relation to the type of thirst. Are you really so thirsty that you need to guzzle down a couple glasses of water and then a short time later do you feel thirsty again? Or do you wake up in the middle of the night and need a drink of water and always have a glass of water next to you in bed? Do you prefer cold drinks or hot drinks? What if you don’t ever feel thirsty? Or if you feel thirsty, but perhaps just want to sip small amounts of water?
All of these differences of thirst are indicators to understanding and diagnosing the patterns of disharmony with which the patient fits into.
Surely we can just recommend right across the board everyone drinks ten glasses of water per day and everything will be solved.
But alas no! It doesn’t work that way. The person who wakes up in the middle of the night with a dry parched throat with feet so hot that they have to stick them out of the bed, can drink and drink as much as they want during the day and they will still wake up feeling dry and thirsty.
How does Chinese medicine distinguish between the different thirst types?
There is more than one type of problem or imbalance in the body that causes a thirst imbalance in the body. One is simply called ‘Fire.’ This may be due to an imbalance which can affect a number of organs including the liver, heart and stomach. Other imbalances may have a tendency to cause bad breath or leave a bad taste in the mouth, ulcers, a hot red face, headaches, excess appetite or even a dream disturbed sleep. These types of people usually crave a lot of water but their thirst never feels quenched.
Another type of thirst problem is termed ‘Yin Deficiency.’ This Yin Deficiency can affect a number of organs including: the lungs, stomach, heart and kidney’s. People who suffer from this deficiency tend to want to drink in small sips even though they constantly have a dry mouth and throat. And if they drink more, they feel worse.
There is another condition in Chinese medicine that is called ‘Damp–Heat.’ It is difficult to translate this traditional term to a modern medical term. Damp-Heat is perhaps more simply explained as having a swamp or compost heap feeling inside the body. The swamp affects certain organs like the stomach, spleen, intestines or gall bladder. What happens to a swamp if you add more water to it? It gets soggier, just like it does in the body when these people start drinking unnecessary excess water. In fact, people who experience this condition often feel worse when they start drinking more water. They actually become more damp which exacerbates the their condition leading to heavy limbs, oedema and the rings on their fingers may even start to feel tight. The worrying scenario here is that these people are then advised to drink even more water to flush it out!
Mark Crain, a registered Chinese herbalist from Brisbane puts it this way: “If you keep watering and watering a pot plant you will eventually rot the roots. It’s no different for people. You are actually damaging the kidneys from excessive water guzzling.”
Giovanni Maciocia, internationally renowned author, lecturer and practitioner of Chinese medicine, says that: “An added difficulty in the West is that more and more people force themselves to drink more frequently in the mistaken belief that this is a beneficial habit to flush the kidneys.”
But isn’t this just old Chinese superstition?
Is there a modern scientific view that discredits the excess water drinking craze?
Even the modern medical profession is on par with traditional Chinese medicine thought here. Dr Margaret McCartney, a UK based medical physician says that “Drinking eight glasses of water per day is thoroughly debunked nonsense.” Marketing by bottled water companies has been very successful and has instilled fear and paranoia into the psyche of people, believing that this will prevent dehydration.
One of the claims of drinking more water is that it improves concentration. Is this so?
Dr McCartney also says that drinking more water when not thirsty actually hinders concentration as opposed to improving it! And this is backed up by research. Traditional Chinese medicine couldn’t agree more. Drinking too much water generates damp and hinders spleen function and according to traditional thought, the spleen is the organ responsible for thinking and concentration.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t drink water. Professor Stanley Goldfarb from the University of Pennsylvania says, “If children drank more water rather than getting extras calories from soda, that’s good.”
According to Chinese medicine, how much water should we drink?
In simple terms, the answer is to satisfy your thirst. If you don’t have a thirst it can indicate a “cold” pattern disharmony. If you have imbalances in your thirst, this needs to be rectified so you have a healthy equilibrium in your body.
Drinking: Sometimes it just comes down to common sense
If you are a roof tiler working in North Queensland or Florida in the middle of summer, yes, you should be drinking more water. If you have a sedentary office job in an air conditioned office in the middle of winter in Dunedin or Toronto, you can drink less water.
As we age shouldn’t we drink more water?
By the time we reach 50 years of age we have gradually been drying up. When we are younger we have 75-80% of water in our cells and as we age it reduces to 50% and lower. What is important to understand here, is that the water content in the cells is what changes. Due to the aging process, water travelling across the cell membrane deteriorates. Drinking more water won’t change that. Suggesting an elderly person to drink more water won’t change the cell membrane and its ability to allow water to transfer across.
Chinese medicine refers to yin fluids. How does this relate to water?
Water is classified as”Yin” in Chinese traditional medicine and the sun is regarded as “Yang“. Standing in the sun won’t tonify your Yang Deficiency, just as drinking excess water won’t tonify a Yin Deficiency. Chinese medicine has a history of using special herbs that have a nourishing yin aspect and different herbs can be used to target different aspects of symptoms associated with a yin deficiency. For example, pears can benefit the yin of the lung and Dendrobium orchard benefits the yin of the kidney.
Chinese medicine couldn’t agree more with Dr Howard Murad, associate clinic professor of medicine at the University of California and author of The Water Secret. He says: “Healthy hydration is about the water you hold in the body, not the water you drink that passes straight through.”
About 30 years ago when I was working with renowned herbalist Kevin Lu in Sydney’s Chinatown, he showed me some Chinese research about yin tonic herbs. The herb Mai Dong, a type of asparagus and common yin tonic enhances water travelling through the cell membrane.
If we eat what Dr Murad calls water rich foods, which are what Chinese medicine classify as yin tonics, such as zucchini and cucumber, the water content of the plant will actually travel across the cell membrane more efficiently. As an additional benefit, a whole bunch of extra nutrients that are not present in plain water will also get into the cells.
Studies have demonstrated that eating fruit and vegetables can hydrate you almost twice as efficiently as drinking a glass of water.
In twenty years time you will be saying; “Remember when they used to tell us to drink 10 glasses of water a day.” Just like you are saying now “Remember when they told us that butter is bad for you, and margarine is good for you and we should not be eating eggs.”
Perhaps consider having a zucchini omelette for breakfast instead of rushing out the door with just a bottle of water.
The good news
There is however a positive side to all those people who drink an unnecessary amount of water. It benefits the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. Warren Buffet who has millions of shares in Coca Cola has pledged to donate billions back to charity so your money is not going to waste. Coca Cola has many off-shoot investments in bottled water, such as New Zealand’s ‘Pump’ brand of bottled water.
So if you are one of those people who can’t walk to the letterbox without taking a water bottle with you and are quite happy to pay more for a litre of water than what you do for petrol, then by all means, please continue to do so.