How dehydration impacts mental health

How dehydration impacts mental health

Dehydration is rough on both the body and mind. It makes people woozy. It renders their thoughts cloudy and their muscles weak. It can slow down even the fastest thinkers or the speediest runners. Avoiding dehydration, however, seems deceptively simple. When people are thirsty, they should just take a drink. Right?

In reality, dehydration hits long before most people even feel thirsty. Mild dehydration is defined as a 1.5 percent loss in normal water volume in the body. Thirst receptors, meanwhile, don’t recognize that anything is wrong until a person is 1 to 2 percent dehydrated.

“By then dehydration is already setting in and starting to impact how our mind and body perform,” explains Lawrence Armstrong, Ph.D., a physiology professor at the University of Connecticut and a hydration expert.

This lapse in performance not only affects athletes in the midst of a marathon – it also hits office workers who can’t quite think of the word they want to use during a meeting. It hits students who are stuck reading the same page of a textbook over and over again because they didn’t understand it the first time. It hits parents who aren’t sure whether or not they’ve left their children in the car.

Dehydration also influences mood. Young men and women who were exposed to mild dehydration reported more fatigue and anxiety than their well-hydrated peers, according to two studies, “Mild dehydration impairs cognitive performance and mood of men,” published in the November 2011 British Journal of Nutrition, and “Mild Dehydration Affects Mood in Healthy Young Women,” published in the Dec. 21, 2011, The Journal of Nutrition. These harsh cognitive effects of dehydration were substantially greater in females than males.

“Even mild dehydration that can occur during the course of our ordinary daily activities can degrade how we are feeling – especially for women, who appear to be more susceptible to the adverse effects of low levels of dehydration than men,” says Harris Lieberman, Ph.D., one of the co-authors of the two studies.

For people with mental illness, dehydration can aggravate their symptoms and turn a pleasant day into a miserable one. Dehydration can determine whether or not a depressed person has the energy to leave the bed that day or whether or not a person with anxiety has a panic attack. When it comes to mental illness, staying hydrated can make all the difference.

What are the signs of dehydration?

Experiencing thirst is only one sign of dehydration. Other symptoms include muscle cramps, heart palpitations, headaches, constipation and dry skin. More unusual signs of dehydration include swollen fingers and craving sugary food.

A quick way to test for dehydration is known as the skin test. People performing the skin test should pinch a piece of skin on their hands between their wrists and fingers, then release that skin. If the skin holds the same position for more than several seconds, they are likely dehydrated.

What are ways to prevent dehydration?

Because mild dehydration can hit people before they even feel thirsty, using thirst as a measure of dehydration can be unreliable. Here are some ways in which a person can avoid dehydration.

  1. Keep water very close

Anyone who has ever had too much to eat knows how dangerous it can be to leave food within arm’s reach – it’s easy to chow down with a mindless intensity. The same is true of water. Those who keep a water bottle near them at all times, will find themselves drinking it without even realizing it. A constant intake of water is a sure way to fight dehydration.

  1. Eat more fruit

The reason why fruit is so juicy is because fruit has a very high water content. For example, watermelon and strawberries contain about 92 percent water per volume; pineapples and oranges contain 87 percent water, according to “List of Fruits & Vegetable With a High Water Content,” by Mala Srivastava, published on the SFGate Healthy Eating website. For people who want to stay hydrated without drinking water all day, fruit is an excellent alternative.

  1. Watch out for alcohol and caffeine

Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, meaning that they promote the production of urine. The more urine is produced the more a person becomes dehydrated. Other diuretic foods include asparagus, beets, onions and lemons.

During the summer months, staying hydrated is even more important. The next time you feel a sudden drop in mood or energy, remember: A glass of water goes a long way. Sovereign Mental Health Services has a Brain Wellness Program that teaches patients how to practice healthy life skills, such as sleep hygiene and proper eating habits. For further questions, please contact Sovereign Mental Health Services at 866-954-0529.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer

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