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Healthy Living: Drinking Water

from "Martha Stewart's Living" June 2000, p.122-125:

By Suzanne Winckler (also see box: How to check your Water Quality)

Our thirst for water is such a potent biological force that it long ago assumed the power of metaphor. It is biblical, mystical, poetical, and, as a passage from Psalm 63 so eloquently implies, the essence of yearning: "My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth after three: in a barren and dry land where no water is."

It is far easier to appease real thirst than the thirst of heart and soul. Water is the most abundant chemical compound on earth, the critical constituent of all living organisms, the home of many. Water and ice make up 75 percent of the earth’s surface. Constantly cycling, forever in flux, water is liquid, solid, vapor. In its many guises, water is by turns elegant and perilous. You can swim like a dolphin or drown in it; clink its cubes in a glass; get caught in a downpour or lost in a blizzard; skate, ski, make an angle, fall down, and break your leg on it; or be transfixed by its cloud shapes. Most glorious of all, you can drink it.

Cool, clear water keeps the human engine running. Conventional wisdom tells us to drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day, but recent medical research suggests that ten or eleven servings a day increases water’s health benefits.

Water composes half to four-fifths of you, depending on how much body fat you have. It makes up about 85 percent of your brain, 80 percent of your blood, and 70 percent of your lean muscle. The human body, like all living organisms, survives by means of an ongoing flow of energy. You are an engine, and water is your fuel, coolant, and lubricant. Water keeps you running. You are a colony of a trillion or so cells, each of which works like a tiny factory, taking in oxygen, nutrients, and hormones; manufacturing waste and carbon dioxide; accumulating toxins; and occasionally revving up to thwart bacteria or viruses that cause raging fevers. Water is the conveyor that delivers and removes the necessary products from each of these very needy, very busy cells. It can achieve these feats because it has two almost magical powers – it can transmogrify an array of substances, and it can then whisk them in and out of cells on demand.

Put a cube of sugar in a cup of gasoline and it just sits there. Put a cube of sugar in a cup of water and it vanishes. It falls apart, dissolves, becomes one with the water. The sugar is still there; it’s just come undone. This vanishing act is happening constantly in your body as water – the "universal solvent" – dissolves nutrients, vitamins, toxins, and other products that cells either need or need to be without. Water then carries this baggage across cell membranes, like ghost slipping through a wall.

Water’s powers are the result of its structure: one atom of oxygen clasping two atoms of hydrogen, a chemically charismatic alliance. Like a trio of sirens, these flirting, beckoning, come-on-to-my-house atoms – with negative and positive charges that work essentially like magnets – are forever embracing some other irresistible arrangement of atoms.

If only the body’s unconscious love affair with water would translate to our conscious desires. Instead, most of us throw ourselves headlong into the day and simply forget to drink water. (How many glasses of water have you drunk today?) A survey conducted by Cornell Medical Center’s Nutrition Information Center in 1998 suggests that more than half of the American population does not drink enough water even though they know they should. Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Eating Well for Optimum Health (Knopf, 2000), has an acronym for water slackers. He refers to them as NAMAIS. When he asks them how much water they drink, they say, "Not as much as I should."

Ideally, drinking water should be a preemptive act. Your body produces about one cup of water a day in the process of converting food to energy but loses about ten cups through respiration, excretion, and sweating. The standard eight-cups-a-day recommendation is sufficient for maintaining your body’s daily fluid requirements. You might consider even more. "I drink ten glasses a day," says Bill Eley, M.D., an epidemiologist at the Rollins School of Public Health and Emory University in Atlanta and co-author of The Water We Drink (Rutgers University Press, 1999). Eley’s habit is in line with recent medical studies suggesting that people can reap significant health benefits from increasing their daily intake to ten or eleven glasses of water.

In 1998, Harvard University researchers reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine that women who drank eleven eight-ounce glasses of water a day were 38 percent less likely to develop kidney stones. Researchers from Harvard and Ohio State University reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that men who consumed at least eleven eight-ounce glasses of water and other liquids cut in half their risk of two common types of bladder cancer, which is the fourth most common cancer among American men.

To derive maximum benefits from water, you need to drink it all day long. Chugging sixty-four ounces at once will cause the body simply to expel what it can’t use. It’s better to take frequent sips instead. Develop the habit of always having a bottle or glass of water at hand – on your desk, kitchen counter, and night table, in your purse or brief case, in your car, and during meals; the salt in your food helps retain water in your body, so you get more mileage from imbibing while eating.

Such simple advice has vast and poignant implications. "This was among my prayers," wrote the Roman poet Horace, "a piece of land not so very large, where a garden should be and a spring of ever-flowing water near the house…" The message echoes across a millennium: Keep water nearby, and partake well of it.

How to Check Your Water Quality

If you have any reason to believe that your water is unreliable, there are a number of things you can do to restore your confidence or ensure that it is safe to drink.

Ask City Hall for a water-quality report. The 55,000 municipalities that provide tap water to 250 million Americans are highly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and since last year have been required by law to provide annual reports on water quality to consumers. These reports must explain the source of a city’s water supply, the levels of detected contaminants, and the health effects of those contaminants. (Bottled water is not better or worse than tap water, since both are held to the same regulatory standards.)

Find out what your Pipes are made of. Since 1992, the EPA has required that public water supplies contain less than 15 parts per billion of lead. If you have lead plumbing, however, the levels at your tap may be higher than the EPA standard. Lead pipes have a dull gray color, can be scratched easily with a sharp metal object, and will not attract a magnet. The best but most expensive alternative is new plumbing. An interim solution, since lead accumulates in water as it stands in your pipes, is to run the water for thirty to sixty seconds before drinking or cooking with it. Lead levels are higher in hot water than in cold, so do not drink, cook, or make baby formula with hot tap water. If you can’t get access to the pipes in your house but are concerned that there may be lead contamination in your water, have it tested by a private lab recommended by your local health department. The process can be tested by a private lab recommended by your local health department. The process can be expensive, as much as $200 to test water for six heavy metals, nitrate, and mineral levels.

Have private Well Water tested periodically. According to Eley, "People who should be the most concerned about their drinking water are those who have their own water supply, especially if they are pumping ground water in areas of high agricultural chemical use." Call your county health department of recommendations of where to get the water tested or the Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791, if the county can’t help. The procedures and cost will vary, but a standard test for bacteria and nitrates (the compounds associated with agricultural chemicals) should cost about $30. Tests for heavy metals, including lead, will cost more and may require taking a water sample to a private lab for testing.

Consider an in-home Water Filter. The filters available for home use include faucet-mounted filters, faucets with built-in filters, and carafe-style filters to remove some, but not all, pathogens, and heavy metals, including lead. They range in price from $15 for carafes to $295 for faucets with filters. The consumers Union has rated the major brands and published the results in the October 1999 issue of Consumer Reports. Reverse osmosis is often touted as the most effective filtration method for the removal of pathogens; however, in-home systems are expensive ($1,000 or more) and waste half again as much water as they filter – which is a burden on the environment. Such a system is really most appropriate for a household where a member has a suppressed immune system. - S. W.