From day one, we've been taught that it's important to stay hydrated. But what happens if you don't drink enough water? Is it really that bad for you? As it turns out, recent research shows that dehydration may be even worse for our bodies and minds than we once thought.
An August 2018 study published in Physiological Reports examined 13 volunteer subjects who exercised and sweated a lot without hydrating themselves. Participants were asked to simply push a button every time a yellow square appeared on a monitor after three separate moments: once after relaxing and keeping hydrated; once after extended heat, exertion, and sweat while staying hydrated; and once after heat, exertion, and sweat without staying hydrated. Researchers used brain scans and the easy button task to test the responsiveness of the participants — who were all probably super thirsty. And the results were pretty stunning.
Though researchers noted that heat and exertion alone were enough to bring down participants' scores on the task, the addition of dehydration made their performance almost twice as bad.
"We wanted to tease out whether exercise and heat stress alone have an impact on your cognitive function and study the effect of dehydration on top of that," said Mindy Millard-Stafford, the study's principal investigator. "We found a two-step decline."
Not only did dehydration lead most of the volunteers to make mistakes while doing the simple task, it also altered the participants' brains.
"The areas in the brain required for doing the task appeared to activate more intensely than before, and also, areas lit up that were not necessarily involved in completing the task," said the study's first author Matt Wittbrodt in a press release. "We think the latter may be in response to the physiological state: the body signaling, 'I'm dehydrated.'"
Symptoms of Dehydration and How to Fix Them
Here's the good news: Most people don't need to be part of a scientific study to figure out that they're dehydrated. There are quite a few common signs that signal it's time to rehydrate, according to the Mayo Clinic. These dehydration symptoms include:
- Extreme thirst
- Less frequent urination
- Dark-colored urine
But there's more good news: Getting rehydrated again usually involves the super-simple solution of drinking water. That said, severe dehydration — especially over a long period of time — may require medical attention. If you or a loved one can't keep down fluids, has bloody or black stool, has had diarrhea for more than 24 hours, or is visibly disoriented, call the doctor ASAP.
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