NEWSTART Element #3: Water

A detailed, scientific explanation of Nutrition by Neil Nedley, M.D., taken from his book Proof Positive

Thicker, more viscous blood increases stroke and heart disease risk. One measurement that, in part, determines blood thickness is called hematocrit. This reflects the number of red blood cells in the blood, and usually closely parallels the hemoglobin level. Hematocrit values greater than 50 percent double the risk of cardiovascular events in men and increase the risk fourfold in women.53 If a person is not drinking enough water, hematocrit rises, thus increasing risk of heart attacks and strokes. Also, a lack of water causes dehydration of red blood cells, making them less flexible, and they have a greater tendency to clot.54

All told, a wealth of information has been published on the subject of blood flow characteristics and its impact on a variety of disease states.55, 56, 57, 58 The research often is published under the title of “hemorheology.” This term comes from “hemo” which refers to blood and “rheology” which refers to the study of the flow properties of complex materials. Among the implications of this research is that adequate water drinking combined with other aspects of a healthful lifestyle may help postpone or prevent a variety of diseases and their complications. A few of the benefits that may accrue from improvements in blood flow caused by a more liberal intake of water are shown in Figure 16: Physical Improvements Resulting from Increased Blood Flow.

Diabetes is associated with increased blood viscosity or thickness. As the blood sugar level is brought under better control, viscosity tends to improve. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels may predispose individuals to high viscosity in part because of dehydration. When blood sugars are running high, the kidneys lose sugar, and the sugar takes water with it. The issue of blood thickness in diabetes is of particular concern because high viscosity levels may play a role in diabetes-related kidney and nerve damage.59

Blood viscosity also appears to have a role in high blood pressure. In population studies, the higher a person’s blood pressure, the higher their blood viscosity tends to be. If a person can reduce hematocrit, the blood pressure will tend to decrease. This provides a double benefit: lower blood pressure and lower blood viscosity work together to further decrease stroke risk.60

Ironically, those on diuretics (water-losing pills) for their blood pressure may in some ways be perpetuating their problems. The reason is that these drugs tend to decrease blood volume, and thus can contribute to an increase in blood thickness. Diuretics may not only cause loss of water from the body, but may also contribute to loss of fluid from red blood cells—making them less flexible and deformable.61 Recall that such changes will, in turn, make the blood more likely to clot. The same changes may also perpetuate the high blood pressure.

Some have speculated that water may have another role in decreasing high blood pressure and in preventing strokes. Pure water actually acts as a mild diuretic. If you drink more water than you need, the excess water is eliminated through the kidneys. There is one subtle qualification: kidneys can only excrete water that is accompanied by sodium. As a result, excess water drinking results in the loss of some sodium. Thus, drinking plenty of pure water helps to decrease body sodium stores and thus may contribute to blood pressure lowering.

Other lifestyle habits can help to improve blood fluidity. These factors include stopping cigarette smoking, eliminating the use of alcohol, losing weight (if overweight), engaging in regular moderate exercise,62, 63 and adopting a high fiber, low fat, low protein diet.64, 65, 66

Regarding exercise, moderate exertion is beneficial to the circulation, but excessive exercise may be harmful to blood fluidity. For example, those who exercise in the heat and are perspiring heavily may be more likely to have problems with clotting due to “thickening of the blood” because of blood volume loss.67

Water drinking has still other benefits. Your mother no doubt told you that it was good for your kidneys and urinary bladder. However, she probably was not aware of its effect in helping to prevent gallbladder disease. A number of studies have indicated that drinking liberal amounts of water helps to dilute the bile in the gall bladder and thus decrease the risk of stone formation.68, 69, 70 Those who are overweight, or have a family history of gallstones, or who have known gallbladder disease would be wise to seriously consider the benefits of drinking more water.

In my medical practice I have found that insufficient water intake can even mimic hypoglycemia. This problem seems to be more common in younger individuals with lower blood pressures. I will never forget the businesswoman who had extensive laboratory tests to determine why she had “hypoglycemic fainting spells.” None of the tests provided an answer. After this extensive evaluation, I suspected the problem rested with something as simple as inadequate fluid intake. I promptly encouraged her to drink a minimum of 12 glasses of water every day. She followed my instructions and her problem was solved.

Drinking more water decreases the risk of kidney stones by diluting the mineral content in the urinary system. Consuming liberal amounts of water may also decrease the risk of urinary tract infections. Water drinking among smokers may also help to decrease the risk of cancer of the bladder for similar reasons. Smoking gives rise to powerful carcinogens (as explained in Chapter 16, “Dying for a Cigarette? Kick the Habit and Live”), some of which are stored in the bladder. The more water one drinks, the less concentrated are those toxins, and the greater the stimulus to void and expel them. In fact, water drinking has so many benefits, that a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association called attention to the particular hazards facing older Americans from inadequate fluid intake.71 Harvard researchers estimated that by making sure older people drank enough fluids, over one million days of hospitalizations and over a billion dollars each year would be saved.

In this section, I have tried to provide in broad strokes just a glimpse of the exciting research that encourages us to drink plenty of water daily. The internal use of water can clearly reduce suffering and save dollars as well as lives. However, water can also be applied externally to deal with a host of physical problems. Those observations apply in general with equal force to other painful conditions such as muscle aches, strains, etc. A full discussion of the broad science of “hydrotherapy”—or water therapy—is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, suffice it to say that external applications of water have been used with clinical success in conditions as varied as headaches, asthma, muscle tension, and digestive complaints.

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