Most people know that hydration is important. Unfortunately, they’re thinking about hydration incorrectly.
It’s not their fault. From a young age, we’re led to believe that more water is always better. People think that if we don’t drink eight glasses of water per day, we’ll shrivel up like a prune in Death Valley.
The 8x8 rule is widely accepted as fact, but is there any science behind it? Not really. Well, to be more direct… NO.
So where does this misguided idea come from? 8x8 seems to have originated with Irwin Stillman, a doctor from the 1960s who wrote a few popular diet books. He advised drinking 64 ounces of water per day, which was actually down from the US National Academy of Science’s 84-ounce target set in the 1940s.
This confusion around hydration has consequences. It’s why many athletes over-hydrate with plain water and consequently develop low sodium levels. This condition, called hyponatremia, is a fairly common and quite dangerous problem, particularly in endurance sports.
It’s also why folks on low-carb diets, whole foods diets, or fasting regimens struggle to feel their best. They have a hydration strategy that makes their situation worse, not better.
These seemingly unrelated folks have one thing in common: their sodium needs are greater than the guy on a Standard American Diet (SAD). They’re getting enough water, but they’re neglecting the other component of hydration: electrolytes (specifically sodium).
And when they address this oversight, the benefits are recognizable almost immediately. Better energy, better mental function, better sleep, better athletic performance, and more.
But before I wade into those benefits, let’s dip our toes into the basics. First up: the right way to think about hydration.
How To Think About Hydration
Think of hydration as a process that requires two inputs:
Most people get enough water, if not too much. The truth is, healthy people with healthy kidneys and sweat glands rarely become dehydrated.
Why? Because when we need more water, special receptors in our brain pick up on it. They tell a brain structure called the hypothalamus that blood volume is low, and we get thirsty. Then we drink something.
We don’t have such an elegant system for electrolyte intake. We have to rely on dietary choices for these crucial minerals.
Yes, we do crave salty things. And this helps us get enough sodium. But our sodium craving isn’t quite as powerful as the very reliable system known as thirst.
And electrolytes (sodium in particular) are essential for hydration. Don’t just take my word for it, though—let's unpack the science behind why this is true.
Why Fluid Balance is Important
If you look up hydration in a medical textbook, you’ll find continual references to fluid balance. Hydration is all but synonymous with this term.
Fluid balance describes how water is distributed throughout your bodily tissues. And since we’re mostly water weight, this distribution matters.
Think about it. What makes your blood flow? What keeps your skin moist? How do you excrete toxins through sweat, urine, and feces? Fluids.
Proper fluid balance (aka, healthy hydration) means all this machinery is running smoothly. It means that blood, sweat, tears, and pee flow properly, among other functions.
Along with water, the electrolytes sodium and potassium are key constituents in this system. Sodium regulates fluid outside your cells, while potassium regulates it inside cells.
For the most part, your body does a nice job maintaining fluid balance without any conscious direction. Consider that:
- If you drink too much water, you’ll excrete more fluids through urine.
- If you don’t drink enough water, your brain will tell you via the thirst mechanism.
- If you consume too many electrolytes, you’ll excrete more electrolytes through urine.
- If you consume too few electrolytes, your body will pull these minerals from bone. (That’s how important they are!).
That last bullet doesn’t sound so good, does it? That’s because it’s not.
Just because blood levels of electrolytes return to normal, it doesn’t mean hydration status is optimal. You can pass a blood panel but still be electrolyte deficient.
The takeaway? Hydration isn’t just about water. It’s about water PLUS electrolytes. Consume both in the right amounts, and your body shouldn’t have to take minerals away from your bones to keep you feeling and performing well. Personally, I’m a fan of that.
10 Benefits of Staying Hydrated
When you consume sufficient water and electrolytes, your bodily fluids will be nicely balanced. Here’s how your body will thank you.
#1: Better energy
Low energy is a red flag for sodium deficiency. I see it all the time, especially in athletes (who lose extra sodium through sweat) and low-carb dieters (who lose extra sodium through urine).
Addressing my own sodium deficiency eventually led my coaches and I to co-create LMNT, our tasty electrolyte drink mix. Once I dialed in my electrolytes, I felt like a whole different animal on the jiu-jitsu mat—and I felt better doing everything else too. Many of the symptoms I’d attributed to blood sugar or other issues was, in fact, inadequate sodium intake.
Fatigue is also a symptom of dehydration, but most people aren’t low on water. They’re low on electrolytes.
#2: Improved brain function
Brain fog is another common symptom of both dehydration and sodium deficiency. And again, low sodium is the bigger problem.
Sodium is critical for brain function. Along with potassium, it conducts electricity between brain cells so you can read these words or daydream about your next meal while you idly scan them.
Your brain also depends on proper fluid balance to stay suspended in cerebrospinal fluid. Yet another reason to drink electrolyte water.
#3: Fewer muscle cramps
A more likely cause is electrolyte deficiency. In the 1920s, salt supplementation reduced cramping in industrial workers, and more recently, football players with saltier sweat cramped more frequently than their teammates.
Get the right amount of sodium for proper fluid balance and you’ll cramp less. Simple as that.
#4: Fewer headaches
A headache can have many causes. Two of the potential causes are dehydration and electrolyte deficiency—so if you aren’t hydrating with water and electrolytes, headaches may follow.
I see this keto flu symptom a lot. Keto and Paleo folks tend to consume less salt than the general population while simultaneously excreting more of it. It’s a recipe for disaster, and a big reason why many folks give up on their low-carb diet.
#5: Better performance
When you sweat, you lose both water and sodium. Both need to be replaced to keep your body humming along.
Visit the finish line of any marathon and you’ll see the consequences of replacing only H2O. A large percentage of endurance athletes need medical care, often in the form of intravenous saline.
The more you sweat, the more sodium you’ll need. In warm climates, athletes can lose up to 7 grams of sodium per day!
#6: Makes fasting and keto easier
The resulting deficiencies cause a constellation of symptoms—headaches, low energy, brain fog, cramps—called keto flu. Bumping up electrolytes (especially sodium) generally fixes it.
#7: Healthy blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a well-documented heart disease risk factor. Electrolytes are important for mitigating this risk.
Potassium in particular has been extensively studied in this area. Higher potassium intakes are correlated with lower blood pressures, and potassium supplementation has been clinically shown to decrease bp in those with hypertension.
What about sodium? Doesn’t sodium cause high blood pressure?
#8: Smoother digestion
Staying hydrated is essential at all stages of digestion. Water is the lubricant that keeps things moving along down there.
Magnesium can also help with constipation. The form most studied for it’s laxative effect is magnesium oxide.
#9: Skin health
Skin health depends on hydration status. If you’re not hydrating properly, you may end up with dry skin or cracked lips.
But dry skin doesn’t prove you’re dehydrated. This condition, like most, is multifactorial. Zinc deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, low ambient humidity, and many other factors affect skin health.
#10: Improved sleep
Sodium affects sleep too. It’s been shown, for instance, that a sodium-restricted diet decreases deep sleep, REM sleep, and wakefulness overnight.
Why? Because salt restriction stimulates the release of adrenaline, a stimulating chemical that helps you retain sodium.
How To Stay Hydrated
Your body is good at regulating water intake. You simply drink when thirsty.
It’s not as adept, however, at nudging you to consume electrolytes. That’s why you need to consciously ensure you’re getting enough.
Sodium is the most common deficiency. And if you sweat profusely, practice fasting, eat a low-carb, paleo diet, or whole foods diet, or any combination of the above: you may need a good deal more than that 5-gram baseline.
Calibrate your sodium intake based on how you feel. Take into account your energy, mental function, muscle cramps, headache frequency, and sleep. Staying salty can help in all these areas.
For a lot of folks, sodium is the missing link to optimal hydration. So if you recall one thing from this chat, remember to drink electrolyte water to thirst—hydration = water + electrolytes.