The Quest for Hydration
Drinking fluids is essential to stay alive. But how much do we really need, and what counts in our quest to stay hydrated?
It's ironic that the one thing Debbie Scaling Kiley needed was the one thing that was all around her as far as the eye could see, but wasn't for the taking: water. Setting sail from Annapolis, Md., and headed for Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the boat Kiley and her crew of four were on sank off the coast of North Carolina leaving them with no survival equipment and not a drop of fresh water.
Stranded at sea in a small life raft, the five survivors slowly started to dehydrate, and after several hours, dehydration set in.
"We sank at about 2 p.m.," says Kiley. "By the next morning, we were thirsty, but the cold was more important than the thirst. Later that day, though, the thirst started to drive us crazy. It's a longing like nothing I'd ever felt before; it's nothing like being hungry. It's torturous because there was nothing we could do, but we'd have done anything for water."
By the third day, they were semidelusional, and that night, two of the men on the raft drank seawater to quench their thirst. The next day, in a delusional state, both men jumped overboard.
"By the fifth day, we were so thirsty, we were overwhelmed by it," says Kiley. "We were at the point of believing we were going to die of dehydration. I've been told the human body can last absolutely no longer than seven days, but in many cases, as I believe was the case with us if we had stayed out there longer, a person can only last five or six days."
On the fifth day, Kiley and one other survivor were rescued. They were immediately given ice cubes to suck on and IV fluids to re-hydrate them. Her story, compelling in so many ways, illustrates to the extreme the importance of water and fluids in our lives.
Water: Why We Need It
"Hydration is important because the body is comprised mostly of water, and the proper balance between water and electrolytes in our bodies really determines how most of our systems function, including nerves and muscles," says Larry Kenney, PhD, a professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State.
Drinking fluids serves a range of purposes in our bodies, such as removing waste through urine; controlling body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure; and maintaining a healthy metabolism.
Without it, the body begins to shut down, as seen in Kiley's experience at sea. Symptoms of severe dehydration include altered behavior, such as severe anxiety, confusion, or not being able to stay awake; faintness that is not relieved by lying down; an inability to stand or walk; rapid breathing; a weak, rapid pulse; and loss of consciousness.
While striking a water balance in our bodies is something that happens naturally as we consume three meals a day coupled with beverages, most people aren't aware that the body is only one or two percentage points away from a problem.
"Very slight changes in body water may create some performance issues in sports; as little as a 2% decrease in body water can lead to dehydration and performance detriments in sports," says Kenney. "When your water levels decrease by higher levels like 3% or 4%, there are physiological changes that occur that may have health consequences, such as increased heart rate and body temperature."