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Hydration and Your Gut, Explained by a Doctor

The Cabinet — 04.13.21
by Dr. Erica Matluck

Feeling tired? Drink more water. Have a headache? Drink more water. You might be tired of hearing this age-old advice, but we’re here to tell you, again: drink more water — because your gut health depends on it too. 
When our stomach doesn’t feel quite right, we often think about what we ate recently, but hydration is just as crucial. “One of the most important things about hydration is that it keeps the bowels moving,” explains Dr. Erica Matluck, a Naturopathic Doctor and Nurse Practitioner. And when your gut feels good, you feel good. “Optimal gut function is integral to wellbeing,” says Dr. Matluck.

How does hydration affect bowel movements?

Think beyond fiber. Fiber is just part of the equation when you’re constipated or have diarrhea. Regular bowel movements require hydration, and dehydration is one of the most common causes of constipation, Dr. Matluck explains. “While fiber is the key to creating bulky stools, water is essential to soften them enough so that we can eliminate with ease. Without water, elimination can be difficult and uncomfortable and ultimately lead to other digestive complaints.” Think hemorrhoids, bloating, and SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).

How do I avoid dehydration?

Our body’s cells don’t function well without proper hydration, and being proactive about it is key. Just a 2% decrease in the water content in your body causes you to feel thirsty — but by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Make sure you’re hydrating regularly throughout the day but also upping it if you’re consuming diuretics like coffee, tea, or alcohol, or doing something that works up a sweat, like exercising or just being outside during a hot day.

What are electrolytes, and why do we need them?

“Hydrating the tissues of the body also involves the movement of electrolytes,” explains Dr. Matluck. “If the body is dehydrated from sweating, sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium are also being lost. After a workout or being out in hot weather, electrolytes are a key piece of the rehydrating puzzle. Same goes if you’ve got a stomach bug. “Diarrhea and vomiting can dehydrate the gut rapidly so it is important to be mindful of water and electrolytes if you are experiencing either of these,” Dr. Matluck says. But when you’re looking for electrolytes to help hydrate, make sure you’re not drinking tons of artificial sugar along with them. Watch out for sports drinks that may contain sugars and dyes. 
Coconut water is a great option to reach for — it’s full of electrolytes like sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and especially potassium, which most of us don't consume enough of on a daily basis. 

What events could cause dehydration?

We know we lose water during a sweaty workout — the proof is on the yoga mat. But don’t rely on sweat to tell you that you need to drink up. You’ll also want to reach for water and electrolytes if you have a stomach bug, food poisoning, or a hangover. And it's important to hydrate when on your period, as well — that’s when your progesterone and estrogen are low, causing fluid to leave your blood vessels and leak into your body’s tissues (aka bloating).

How long can dehydration last?

A mild case of dehydration can be resolved in an hour, but if you’re having gut issues as a result of dehydration, you might need to be patient. “More severe cases causing chronic constipation could take weeks to months and require extensive diet and lifestyle changes,” cautions Dr. Matluck. “It depends on the severity of the dehydration, and other variables such as your diet and the movement of your intestinal muscles.” If you’re used to getting by with just a couple of glasses of water a day, doubling or tripling your intake can feel uncomfortable, so pace yourself and consider getting a little help. “If rehydrating causes bloating or discomfort, slowing down your water intake and adding an electrolyte replacement may help,” says Dr. Matluck.
Now, it’s time to hydrate! 

Note: This information is for educational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before treating any disorder.


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