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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

Dehydration and Stress


I’m sitting here writing this in the middle of a heat wave, which serves as a timely reminder on the little commented upon link between dehydration and stress.  Of course dehydration affects health in general and not just stress in particular, but its one of those things which, like stress, if left unaddressed, will make things worse over time.

I remember once reading a leaflet published by a local health shop years ago, suggesting that we should all drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water a day.  I looked for it and couldn’t find it!  The missing bit was that this recommendation should be looked upon as an absolute minimum quantity, unless they were very big glasses indeed. 

Like lots of ‘official’ advise, the leaflet in question was aimed at preventing the effects of deficiency by recommending a minimum without extolling the benefits of an adequate supply in the first place. 

Water is essential to our wellbeing, stop drinking it and you wouldn’t last more than a couple of days.  Advise such as that given in the leaflet, published by a health shop thus providing it with an air of authority, would provide you with just about enough water to keep you ticking over, but no more than that. 

When I was growing up in rural Ireland, we were blessed with a local lady, wise in the ways of herbs and other healing plants.  She was a popular choice for minor ailments and such, avoiding as it did a trip into town to see the doctor, with all the hassle that that ensued.  After all, why wear your best going to church suit twice in the same week when you could possibly avoid it? 

What sticks in my mind was her refrain.  When she would ask the adults how much water they were drinking it invariably led to a bit of a tongue-lashing.  Unless the reported quantity of water being consumed was about 6 to 9 pints, depending on levels of activity, she usually sent people on their way followed by ‘if you don’t look after yourself how do you expect me to?’  That being the refrain referred to above!

For myself I became very familiar with dehydration while serving in some of the hottest parts of the planet.  If ever I needed convincing of the connection between good health and adequate water consumption I became a convert at that point.  You don’t have to go to the tropics to experience dehydration – at a guess I would say that the majority of the population in the UK at this precise moment are dehydrated. In less than one hour under hot and humid weather conditions, muscle endurance and tolerance for physical activity is reduced. Alertness and mental capacity will also be affected. This subsequent reduction in mental capacity is very significant because if the symptoms are not considered in the correct context they can be identified as direct symptoms of stress!  This can lead to inappropriate treatment, which is in fact akin to the healer helping their client to feel better about being ill!!!  You don’t need to be a dietician to exercise some common sense.  If a client tells you that they drink 10 cans of fizzy drink a day and live on fast food – if you haven’t begun to get an inkling as to why they might be unwell by that point alone then you’re in the wrong business.

When I consult with someone as part of my stress management work I look to eliminate as many factors that may be contributing to the presenting problem. 

Commonly stress managers with a uniquely psychological approach to their work do not look into things like diet, hydration etc.  Apart from the obvious fact that we are not trained as dieticians this should not act as a bar from including questions like this in a lifestyle analysis questionnaire. 

If someone tells you that they live on junk food, drink sugar laden soft drinks and coffee all day, smoke like a chimney and never exercise, well, if they are not prepared to start looking after themselves what chance do you have?  Although this example is an exaggeration, by and large people don’t consult therapists unless they are already health conscious for whatever reason, it illustrates a point.

GPs will be able to provide clients with information sheets on good nutrition, its doubtful however that similar sheets exist extolling the virtues of drinking boring old water. 

Few people realise for example that when it is dehydrated the body produces cholesterol, which then surrounds our cells.  It does this in order to protect the fluids contained within the cells.  Short term this is one of natures miracles, long term, not so good.

Dehydration affects thinking, causes headaches and nausea, constipation and irritability.  It does a lot more but those mentioned should be familiar to anyone practising stress management.

Speaking for myself, when I wake up in the morning the very first thing that I do is to drink one or two glasses of water.  This gets me off to a good start and would win the approval of my wise old lady mentioned above.  I have a very clear before and after picture and know the difference that taking steps to ensure proper hydration have made to my own life and health.  I think it’s the Chinese who say that a fish is always the last to appreciate the water – so lets not be fish then!

Paradoxically, stress leads to dehydration in and of itself. The fact of dehydration in the first place stresses the body, thus creating a nice little catch 22 situation if ever there was one.  When people are under stress it is particularly important that they drink plenty of fresh water. 

Further culprits leading to dehydration:

·       Drinks such as tea and coffee, alcoholic beverages – these are diuretic, meaning that they take more water from the body than they provide

·       Commuting, the longer the commute the more careful you should be.  Air travel is especially dehydrating, its not for nothing that most air staff drink water on flights like its going out of fashion

·       Electromagnetic radiation such as that produced by computer screens and mobile phones – drink plenty of water if you work in such an environment

The list is not exhaustive.  On the face of it the above lost is a recipe for how to stop enjoying life.  However, all things in moderation.  I was once taken to a hospital when I was on a particularly hazardous assignment.  Long working hours equalled short sleeping hours.  Initially I was diagnosed with exhaustion, this explained the trembling hands, hallucinations and lapses in memory.  It wasn’t until a Military Doctor took me through a typical 24 hours that caffeine poisoning was discovered to be the cause.  Without realising it I had been drinking up to 20 cups of coffee a day.

The following 3 days blurred into the worst headache that it is possible to have, headaches being a typical withdrawal symptom from caffeine.  I was drinking, under supervision mind you and in a proper and orderly military fashion, a litre of water every waking hour to help cleanse my system. 

It’s funny how many people tell me that whenever they feel a headache coming on all that they need is a good old cup of tea.  Might be worth making sure you’re not overdoing it in the first place.

Another surprising thing about dehydration is one of the most common symptoms – not feeling thirsty in the first place.  That’s worth re-reading!!  The body can get so used to being dehydrated that it forgets how to be thirsty in the first place.  A lot of this has to do with drinking for stimulation, soft drinks and other palate tickling liquids being the norm.  It’s not uncommon to see peer pressure being applied as people are mocked for drinking water, can’t you handle a real drink then? A quick search on the net uncovered the following interesting facts – brackets are my comments:

  • 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. (What’s the betting that this applies to most of the world’s population?)
  • The thirst mechanism is often so weak in the chronically dehydrated that it is often mistaken for hunger
  • Even MILD dehydration will slow down one's metabolism as much as 3% (this does not sound like much but this is very significant)
  • A University of Washington study discovered that a single glass of water shut down midnight hunger pangs for almost 100% of dieters taking part in a study
  • Lack of water is the number one cause of daytime fatigue
  • A mere 2% drop in body water can affect mental alertness and tolerance for physical activity
  • Drinking 5 glasses of water daily decreases the risk of colon cancer by 45%, reduces the risk of breast cancer by 79%, reduces the risk of bladder cancer by up to 50%

I haven’t sought to verify these facts any further; perhaps if someone has any information on this subject they would like to write in to us?

Michael O’Sullivan 


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