My dehydration story – don’t let this happen to you

If you’re suffering from a significant number of the following: constant fatigue, muscle soreness, weakness and lethargy, unexplained headaches, insomnia, irregular or fast heartbeat, low blood pressure, brain fog, dizziness, memory loss, attention deficit, confusion, clumsiness, unexplained mood changes, skin ‘tenting’ (skin staying erect for more than 2 seconds when you pinch it), pruney or wrinkly fingers, sudden appearance of face wrinkles, bad breath, dry mouth, dry or flaky skin, inability to sweat, dark urine with strong odour and decreased urination, sweet cravings, sluggish bowels, nausea, blurred vision, extreme thirst and reduced physical endurance-(phew!)-then chronic dehydration may be your problem.

Of course, these are also symptoms of many other health conditions, but it is worth to consider chronic dehydration as a possible cause if you have been exposed to long-term fluid-depriving conditions. Why? Because if left untreated chronic dehydration can require hospitalization and can even be fatal. And secondly, it is really easy to treat. You just have to not make the same mistakes I did. It seems counter-intuitive but it turns out that chronic dehydration, although initially the result of not taking in enough fluids, can actually be made worse by consuming large quantities of water, as I was about to discover.

I had returned home to France three weeks earlier, after spending six months in North India, much of it over the monsoon season. In monsoon, the humidity can remain as high as 85% with temperatures hovering in the upper 30s to mid 40s. In between the downpours, it is uncomfortable to stay outside for longer than a few minutes. Even a brief walk is exhausting. The high humidity + high temperatures is a perfect recipe for dehydration. I was not unfamiliar with the Indian monsoon, and at the time I thought I was drinking enough water. Looking back, I now realize that some of the symptoms of mild dehydration had already begun to set in.

Once back in France I drank less water initially, thinking I didn’t need as much now I was out of the extreme weather conditions of the subcontinent. When my symptoms worsened, I gradually increased my fluid intake. The often recommended water intake is 8 x 8oz glasses of water per day (about two litres) plus 12 ounces for every 30 minutes that you work out. But there are widely differing schools of thought. Water intake needs differ from person to person and depend on several factors such as age, sex, weight, activity levels, climate, etc. I was drinking over two litres of water daily, being careful to pace myself since I’d read somewhere that it’s better to drink slowly throughout the day rather than glugging half litres at a time, but I just felt worse and worse. After three weeks, I had almost every single one of the symptoms mentioned above and I woke up each morning feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.

I would begin to feel a bit better as the morning wore on, but I usually had to lie down by lunch time and would be a zombie by around 5 pm. No matter how much I lay down, I never felt properly rested. The nights were especially difficult. I woke up often, my heart thumping out of my chest. Some days were better than others but mostly I wasn’t good for much more than Netflix and fitful dozing. My symptoms were similar to the early onset of dengue fever (which I had contracted in 2014 in Delhi). Had I been so unlucky as to get it twice, and out of the season for it as well? Maybe I had succumbed to Covid-19 (which has similar symptoms to dengue in the early phases) even though my nasal swab test at the airport in Paris had come back negative. I’d read that false negatives from molecular tests such as RT-PCR were unlikely but not unheard of. Was it chronic fatigue syndrome? Or something even worse? My mind was entertaining all kinds of unpleasant scenarios trying to make sense of it all and my mood was teetering on the edge of depression–a condition with which I am quite familiar. Then I had a brainwave–or so I thought.

I would fast for three days and “reset” my system. Now, I’m not an avid faster. I intend to fast more than I actually do. But I had done several three day fasts over the past couple of years with very positive results. I would only drink water, I decided, and lots of it. It turns out that in my condition the fast was a terrible idea. And this is why.

Longterm exposure to the monsoon climate in India combined with improper and inadequate water consumption while eating a diet low in electrolytes had resulted in my body becoming dehydrated. This condition had become exacerbated after my return to Europe where the temperatures were still in the 20-30 celsius range; certainly not helped by the couple of glasses of wine I was enjoying two to three times a week, flushing water out of my system more rapidly than normal. We are more prone to dehydration as we age, and being in my mid-50s was also a factor.

What I didn’t realize was that the two litres of water I was drinking a day was now exacerbating the condition. My body was crying out for electrolytes more than water; sodium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium, which we need to deliver fluids to our cells. It was like taking packages to the Post Office when there were no postmen to deliver them. Even though I was taking in fluids it wasn’t getting to its destination. Then on top of this, I stopped eating for three days, increasing my water intake to three litres per day, thus removing all sources of electrolytes from my diet both liquid and solid.

Fasting while suffering from chronic dehydration turned out to be a magnificently bad idea. And all that extra water was simply leaching the few stores of electrolytes that my body had left.

By the morning of the third day of fasting I had to call in the army corps of engineers just to get to the bathroom. I could even feel a cavity forming in an upper tooth, that made it excruciating to brush my teeth (I was able to completely sort this by using a time-honored Ayurvedic technique of ‘pulling’ which I’ll blog about another time). I started racking what was left of my brains since the mental fog was so thick I was having trouble stringing rational thoughts together. Had I felt like this before, other than when I had dengue? Yes. Yes, I had. When I had been dehydrated. I looked up the symptoms and they all ticked off like a perfect mark. One word hovered over all else with rays of sunlight streaming from it and harp music (well, I was practically hallucinating by then)–electrolytes. I dragged myself to the supermarket and bought a packet of powdered electrolytes and electrolyte-containing foods (avocados, bananas, Greek yoghurt, olives, pumpkin seeds, miso soup, chocolate milk, turkey, etc.). Less than half and hour after dosing up with electrolytes, I felt a small improvement. I ate the foods gradually at 15 minute intervals. I continued to drink water (though much less) with electrolytes added throughout the day and I actually managed to stay up until 9 o’clock. The following morning I felt what it was like to wake up refreshed. And so the healing began…

Now, two days later I’m back to normal. I feel incredibly grateful to have my health back and will never take my new best friend for granted again. Electrolytes. Don’t leave home without them.


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