A woman drinks a glass of water.
Women battling fatigue and other issues may sometimes find relief by substantially increasing their water consumption. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Water is a critical component of our body’s structure and all its functions.

It makes up approximately 55 percent of the female body.

Key organs—muscles, heart, brain and lungs—are made up of more than 75 percent water.

So what happens when we get busy and don’t take the time to hydrate?

If we leave water out of our daily habits, the results can be subtle but significant. Hypo-hydration can take its toll in ways that affect our normal daily function.

A patient I’ll call Sally is a prime example of what can happen when we don’t hydrate enough.

When she came to see me in the Spectrum Health Midlife and Menopause Health Clinic, she wondered if she was going into menopause because she felt so terrible. She had attended one of my talks and remembered me mentioning the symptoms of menopause—fatigue, hot flashes and irritability.

She had been experiencing all these symptoms, as well as suffering headaches and feeling short-tempered with her husband and kids. Her periods were also irregular, but not entirely indicative of menopause.

After gathering Sally’s information, I had a very good idea what was going on with her.

Dried out

As Sally talked, I noticed her skin and hair were dry. She looked tired and quite thin.

To confirm my suspicions, I started by asking Sally if she practiced her SEEDS (Seven Essential Elements of Daily Success) every day, especially the first one—drinking plenty of water.

Sally said she drank only about one or two 8-ounce bottles of water most days, but she hoped her five cups of coffee and nightly glass of wine would make up the difference. Wrong!

Unfortunately, Sally wasn’t doing very well on the rest of her SEEDS either. She only slept about five hours a night. She didn’t eat balanced meals. She rarely exercised because she was too tired. She barely practiced any meditation or gratitude.

Instead, she found herself rushing to the next event or handling another emergency at work or at home.

When we finished discussing the SEEDS, I told Sally her symptoms were not the result of menopause or her hormones.

She asked why I focused on water and diet. I explained how body function depends on water, especially for cooling and energy. When the body is dehydrated, the muscles can get hotter more quickly, causing them to get tight like beef jerky.

Without adequate water, women can experience hot flashes, muscle spasms and fatigue.

Dehydration can also cause constipation, because the colon removes all the water from the bowel movement to keep enough for survival, causing the bowel movement to be dry and slow-moving.

Why was Sally’s skin so dry? Without adequate water, skin dries up like a sad houseplant. It can look old and tired before its time.

I asked her to think about the water-coffee balance. Her body requires about 80 ounces of water per day. Because coffee and alcohol are dehydrating, she needed to drink an additional glass of water for each cup of coffee or glass of alcohol she consumed, just to stay in balance.

Sally began to realize that her inadequate water intake, combined with her diet poor in complex carbs and protein, had been contributing to her poor energy, bad mood and lack of motivation to exercise or play with her kids.

Lots of libation

Sally’s story is similar to those of many women who come to see me.

She got out of the habit of self-care and thought she did a better job by focusing first on work and others. Wrong again!

Unfortunately, the result is just the opposite of what she strived for. Everyone, including herself, ended up worse off because she neglected herself.

All women, including Sally, must include themselves on their list of people to take care of.

We used the list of SEEDS to make a plan to get Sally back on the road to feeling healthy again.

She agreed to drink two glasses of water before she left the house in the morning (and before her first coffee), another one in the car, one in her office with her second cup of coffee and one more before lunch.

She also committed to drinking another glass of water at lunch, one in the afternoon, one in the car on the way home and a glass at dinner. She even agreed to sacrifice her nightly glass of wine and only drink one or two glasses on the weekend—at least until she felt better.

In addition, she said she would start eating at least two small meals of things like Ezekiel Bread with peanut butter, bananas (for potassium) and a salad with a protein for dinner.

These were all small changes, but at least it would be a start.

I suggested waiting until she felt a little better before beginning a strenuous exercise program. Instead, we talked about incorporating yoga and stretches into her daily routine and focusing on getting more sleep and taking walks with her family.

Sally was surprised when I told her it would take her body at least three days to really catch up on hydration, noting that her muscles, skin and hair would take some time to soak it all up.

She was relieved to hear she would not have to urinate so much after three or four days.

Back to basics

When Sally came in for her recheck four weeks later, I almost didn’t recognize her!

She actually laughed at herself for thinking she was in menopause and not realizing how she had let her health go. She came in hoping for a hormone patch or magic pill to make her feel better, but she was pleasantly surprised to discover she simply had to get back to the basics and recognize the power of hydration.

In the past four weeks, Sally drank plenty of water and felt so much better that:

  • She was no longer depending on coffee to give her energy. She still drank coffee but did so just because she enjoyed the taste, instead of using it as a vice.
  • Her muscle cramps were gone.
  • Her mood improved and everyone noticed. She didn’t even miss her nightly wine.
  • Her night sweats had improved to the point she only experienced them the night before her period started.
  • Her hairdresser commented how much better Sally’s hair felt and looked.
  • She began to think about how she could put daily exercise back in her schedule.
  • She began to have more fun with her kids than she had in a long time.

Things are definitely headed in the right direction for Sally and her family—and it all started with going back to the basics!