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Aug 13, 2019

The Fine Art of Drinking the Right Amount of Water

Aleta Burchyski took the water challenge. Here’s what happened. (Photo: Hannah McCaughey)
Aleta Burchyski took the water challenge. Here’s what happened.

Water is critical to human life. Our bodies are more than 50 percent water. We can survive months barely eating, but even a few days without water and we’ll die. Water flushes toxins out of our organs and cools us down after a workout. But how much do really need? And how much is too much? Lately, there’s been a lot of attention on the internet to what’s known as the Water Gallon Challenge: drinking a gallon per day for a month, with the promise of glowing skin and a lot more energy. Outside editor Aleta Burchyski took on this challenge, which for her was all the more daunting because she hates the taste of plain water. In this episode, we talk to her about her quest and check in with a leading hydration expert, who explains that we don’t know as much about how water affects our bodies as you might think.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are dispatches: stories from our writers in the field.

Peter Frick-Wright (Host): Most jobs come with some kind of hazard. If you’re a lifeguard, maybe it’s sunburn. Accountant? Boredom. Journalist at Outside Magazine? It varies. Most of us are more likely to die testing electric skateboards than trekking through the Himalayas. In fact, one of the most hazardous parts of working at the main office in Santa Fe is being roped into the semi-regular fitness and wellness packages. They’re often the most adventurous, high risk assignments we give out. What basically happens is that someone has an idea connected to the latest workout routines, performance diet, or extreme sport, and then you turn yourself into a lab rat, and try it out.

Former executive editor Sam Moulton, who now heads the company’s marketing department, once did a deep dive into zumba.

[Low-quality Audio of zumba music plays]

Four years later, he’s still recovering.

[Audio of music ends abruptly]

Earlier this year, Outside’s Associate Managing Editor, Aleta Burchyski was asked to take on what, for her, was a particularly daunting assignment: to drink a gallon of water a day for 30 days straight. Her chronicle of her experiences struck a nerve with readers, and so Outside Podcast producer Stephanie Joyce sat down with Aleta to ask, ‘why on earth did you do that? And, what did you learn?’

Stephanie Joyce: It kind of goes without saying that water is super important to human life. Our bodies are more than 50 percent water. It’s how we cool ourselves during hot races and flush toxins out of our organs. Humans can survive months without eating, but even a few days without water, and you’ll die. But Aleta has always been skeptical about water. 

Aleta Burchyski: I think I have disliked water probably from the time I was two and a half years old—it tastes like sewage. 

Joyce: Aleta was always happy to drink coconut water or juice or milk, but she rarely drank pure water.

Burchyski: And a lot of co-workers over time have called me on it. Like, a lot of Outside editors here, you'll see them with a big glass of water on their desk all day long. You'll run into them at the drinking fountain and they're like, ‘I'm filling up for the third time today. How are you drinking zero water?’ It just was sort of this fun running joke except for how i didn't feel good.

I've struggled a lot with sort of chronic fatigue type, you know, symptoms and, um, just sort of general lack of energy.

Joyce: Late last year, Aleta started to wonder if there might be a connection between not drinking water and not feeling great. So, when the staff at outside were asked to pitch fitness challenge stories, Aleta thought: this is my chance to learn to love water.

Burchyski: I initially proposed maybe I could—I don't know—go around town to all the different grocery stores and go to their water vending machines. I will try every brand of bottled water and I'll do, like, a tasting notes, and that'll be really fun for me. And instead what I got was this gallon challenge, which was just an absurd volume of water every day for 30 days, and let's write about how much I peed.  

Joyce: So this was not your idea? 

Burchyski: Absolutely not. For that I would like to thank editor-in-chief Chris Keyes.

Joyce: Understandably, Aleta had some concerns about this challenge right off the bat. She worried that she was going to end up sleep deprived because she would be going to the bathroom all night long... She was also worried about hyponatremia, which is when you drink so much water that you end up diluting the sodium in your body. That can lead to all kinds of complications and even death. 

Outside has reported plenty of stories—including on this podcast—about how dangerous hyponatremia can be for athletes. It’s also a concern for people with certain health problems. 

But Aleta did some googling and quickly learned that so long as she paced herself and didn’t try to drink the whole gallon too fast, she was going to be fine.  So, she started the challenge  and kept a journal while she was doing it. 

Burchyski (reading): Day 1: I'm peeing every 15 minutes. How in the hell am I supposed to get anything done? 

Burchyski: So the first thing I did on day one was go to the grocery store and buy eight gallons of water. You know, the milk jugs. One gallon, eight of them. And I bought just sort of the off-the-shelf purified water, which I figured was a decent bet for tasting good. I was wrong about the taste—still tasted terrible. Um, I realized right off the bat that I hated this whole thing. I was peeing every 15 minutes. I just barely made it through a 20-minute meeting before, like, we were in a serious danger zone, and it just did not bode well for overall, sort of, workplace productivity.

Joyce: Uh, where is your office in the Outside building in relationship to the bathroom.  

Burchyski: You know, I know that I can make it there in under 30 seconds. Um, our conference room where we have our meetings is a bit farther. Uh, there is a bathroom upstairs but it has sort of a haunted vibe—don't like it. Try to avoid it.—So if I'm upstairs, and I want to go downstairs, I have to count on more like 45 seconds, and that's, you know, hoping you don't run into a co-worker who needs something from you.

Joyce: By noon what were you thinking?

Burchyski: Uh, well, uh, by noon I had probably peed upwards of 10 times. So that, that was sort of a very special feeling. And I think I was just ready to be done with it. 

Joyce: Middle of day one.

Burchyski: Yeah four hours in. Go team.

Joyce: How do you start out day two?  

Burchyski: Well, so day two I peed twice before my first glass of water, and that did not feel cute to me. It felt terrible. I hadn't even had anything to drink yet, and I peed twice. So, was real glad to kick that off. I think from there, it was sort of the same slog to get through all of the water. 

I think that really the biggest way to fail is to go into the day without, like sort of a strict schedule for yourself. If you just put that gallon of water on your desk and assume that you're going to remember to drink it, you are probably wrong. And you are going to wind up with two-thirds of a gallon left to chug around 3:30 in the afternoon, and that is going to be rough for you when it comes to bedtime.

So I sort of skewed the opposite. Um, I used my phone timer to set an alarm every hour on the hour. And I just sort of paced out about 14 ounces of water an hour, which is a good amount under the amount that would put you at, sort of, the hyponatremia risk zone. And I just banged it out, and every time my phone went off, I would pour a new glass of water, and that way, when I started at around 7:30 in the morning, I was done between 3:30 and 4:00.

Joyce: Wow, okay, this is a serious system, for sure.

Burchyski: Yeah. I think that pacing is absolutely key, and you know, and it's better for your kidneys that way too. Like, there is a health benefit as well as sort of like the bathroom sanity perspective.

Joyce: Yep. At this point are you thinking like, I’m just going to be peeing every 15 minutes for the next month?

Burchyski: Yeah, I will say at this point, sort of the yoga philosophies of just being in the moment and not attaching judgment to a feeling or sensation were really hard to channel because I was peeing so much and in the bathroom so often. I think on day two, I definitely got in my 10,000 steps just with going to the bathroom every 15 to 20 minutes.

Burchyski (reading): Day 7: Can we talk about how good I am at yoga right now? My hamstrings are much more flexible and my back bends with ease. Even better, I have energy afterward, and I'm not horribly sore the next day. 

Joyce: Day 7—the world is not ending anymore. 

Burchyski: No. And I had a real revelation on day seven, which was that I was waking up thirsty. Um, usually I will skip any kind of fluid intake until, I don't know, around 10 a.m. Coffee time. So to wake up at 8 am thirsty was mind-blowing.  

Joyce: Uh, was it confusing? Were you like why do I feel thirsty, I'm drinking more water than I ever have in my entire life?

Burchyski: Yeah, it was sort of that classic like confusion. ‘What is this thing I'm feeling?’ And betrayal at my regimen—the peeing I could handle, but it's like, ‘why am I thirsty?’ I don't know, I guess because hydration is great, and my body loves it. 

Joyce: Evidently. Um, you're also feeling more limber. Go to a yoga class.

Burchyski: Yeah, my energy just all of a sudden was what I would actually consider good. Like, I could wake up in the morning and get out of bed and feel stoked on the day and maybe even do, like, some sun salutations right out of bed. It was just a whole bright new world for me.

Burchyski (reading): Day 10: A switch to water that's been ultra purified by reverse osmosis, plus carbon polishing and UV-sterilization has proved revelatory. It's fully palatable and delicately sweet without a hint of chlorine. I'm now the proud owner of a refillable 3 gallon jug.

Burchyski: So my husband took me around to a couple grocery stores, and we tried first one machine that I don't recall the name of that's at our local co-op and our whole foods. And it was good, but it definitely was not love at first sip. So we went to our local sprouts grocery store, and they had a different brand of machine—Arctic Mountain. I'm a big fan of Arctic Mountain, and that was just—that was the one. For me, that was the one.

Joyce: So day 10 you find the water. Does that change anything?

Burchyski: It changes everything, oh my god. It really took a lot of the struggle out of the challenge—I thought. Because even with a gallon of, sort of, prepackaged ultra purified water. I was still getting sort of swampy hints—little nuances of chlorine chemicals in there every once in a while, and I just, I wouldn't particularly call it a fun flavor in my mouth. I would definitely have moments where I felt my stomach rebelling against the hourly 14 ounces, and once I switched to Arctic Mountain, like, all of that struggle went away.  

Joyce: Bring on the gallon. 

Burchyski: Yeah, bring it on. And from there, I think my body had adapted. I was peeing a lot less. I had more energy, and it finally sort of tasted good. And I finally understood what people were talking about when they say, ‘oh my god, I love water you're so crazy.’

Joyce: How many times a day are you peeing at this point?

Burchyski: At this point I am peeing 15 times, which is still high, I think, for most people. On an unofficial survey of friends, um, and family members, most people felt like they pee somewhere in the 6 to 12 bracket. So a little high, but at this point it no longer felt debilitatingly distracting from getting my work done. 

Burchyski (reading): Day 14: I crave water first thing in the morning instead of coffee. I don't recognize myself anymore. 

Joyce: So Did you actually stop drinking coffee in the morning?

Burchyski: Oh god no. I continued to drink coffee, but it wasn't the first thing I wanted in my mouth. Um, I, I think that instead I wanted to hydrate—instead of caffeinate. I mean who knew?

Burchyski (reading): Day 24: My massage therapist confirms that my muscles and fascia are noticeably looser. She's shocked to learn that before this, in the two plus years she's been trying to fix my body, I have been drinking barely any water.  

Joyce: So when you went into the massage therapist that day— 

Burchyski: —It was literally, ‘well Monica, let me tell you about this new lifestyle trend called drinking water, and I'm doing it now, and I feel great.’ And she was like, ‘great—you're super late to the party. Everyone else drinks water. What have you been doing? You come and see me once a month, and you're so broken, and you could have just been drinking water this whole time.

Joyce: So then you do this for actually not 30 but 32 days? 

Burchyski: Yeah. Whoops. I just kept going.

Joyce: Um, and why do you decide to stop when you do? 

Burchyski: Well, I mean, a gallon is ultimately a little ridiculous for my height, weight, you know, general body composition, age, activity level, lifestyle. It's just more than I need, and at a certain point I did start to feel really guilty about how much water I was flushing down the toilet. Because it's not just how much you're peeing. Like, the flush too. Like, that is water down the drain, and I didn't need it, so I stopped drinking quite that much. 

Joyce: How much water are you drinking now every day?

Burchyski: I, on a typical day, do a solid two liters of just straight water. Um, In addition to that, I will also do like a 24-ounce thermos of coffee in the morning, um, and I'll typically have a 16-ounce mug of tea somewhere in the day—just like a cozy chamomile moment. Uh, and then at dinner, we have a SodaStream at home. So that's another bonus—probably 14 ounce glass of water. And any fun adult beverages are also extra. 

Joyce: So like on average maybe...?

Burchyski: I was not hired to do math here at Outside Magazine, so I will leave that to you, but um, it's definitely less than a gallon on most days.

Joyce: But a whole lot more than what you were drinking previously.

Burchyski: Yes, it turns out that anything is greater than zero, and I am definitely drinking greater than zero amount of water each day.  

Joyce: When you think back, do you think you needed to do the full gallon in order to get the benefits that you saw?

Burchyski: Um, I think that in order to, sort of, get to the emotional benefits of, uh, building this into part of my lifestyle, making a habit of it, um, sort of, coming to terms with the ability to drink water that maybe isn't always the best tasting choice that I could have—um, for that, I do think that the gallon was helpful.

Joyce: After the break, we talk to a hydration scientist about what drinking a gallon of water a day does to your body. 

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Joyce: So, Aleta felt a lot better after her month of serious hydrating. But why? I called up Stavros Kavouras.

Kavouras: Water has been what I like to describe as a forgotten nutrient.

Joyce: Kavrouas is the director of the hydration science lab at Arizona State University. And the first thing he told me is that we actually don’t know as much about how water affects our bodies as you might think we would. 

Kavouras: I would say we're barely scratching the top of the surface, you know, the top of the iceberg, and the rest of it is still, uh, remains to be discovered. 

Joyce: Like a lot of hydration scientists, Kavouras has done plenty of research looking at athletes and hydration, but recently he’s also been looking into how water consumption—or lack of water consumption—affects people in their day-to-day lives. 

Kavouras: So, so, usually when you have a small water intake, uh, your body reacts and the first line of defense is increase the antidiuretic hormone. So what this hormone does—it decreases your urinary output. So you wake up in the morning, maybe you go in the morning to the bathroom. You have your morning coffee, you go to work, and it's almost lunch time, and you haven't been to the bathroom again. This should be an idea that you're not drinking enough water. So this is what I call under-hydration

Joyce: Under-hydration. It’s not the same as dehydration, which is a really specific clinical measure of changes in body weight. Kavouras says the biggest marker of under-hydration is an elevated level of that antidiuretic hormone. 

Kavouras: And that elevated hormone seems to be associated with, uh, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. And of course, there are a lot of data that also this hormone has been associated as well with chronic kidney disease, kidney stone, urinary tract infections, etcetera. So being what we call, ‘low water drinker’, you're not probably dehydrated, but you are in a state that your body is more prone to develop, uh, health complications and health problems in the long term. 

Joyce: So when you're talking about low drinkers, when you're, when you're putting people in this category of not dehydrated, but not drinking enough water, how much water are we talking about? Like that people are not getting? 

Kavouras: The total water intake that you supposed to consume as a drink is about eight glasses of water per day for women and about 12 glasses of water per day for men. So what is low drinkers? So those are people that typically drink, uh, less than four glasses of water per day. 

Joyce: Less than 4, 8 ounce glasses of water a day.

Kavouras: Correct.

Joyce: What percentage of adults are in that category? Do you have a sense of that? 

Kavouras: In this category? Yes, um, if I recall correctly, on the most recent data that we have, this is approximately 25% of Americans, they are in this category.

Joyce: Got it. Okay. And so then, who qualifies as a high drinker?

Kavouras: We define high drinkers—people that they meet the dietary guidelines. So people that they consume what I mentioned before, like 8 or 12 glasses of water for females and males respectively.

Joyce: Just being—just consuming the dietary guidelines makes you a high drink—water drinker. 

Kavouras: This is, this what we use, yes. So meeting the guidelines. I mean, when we have majority of people not meeting the guidelines, then somebody who meets the guidelines is consider high water drinker. 

Joyce: So if someone goes from drinking very little water, to drinking a lot of water all of a sudden, what's happening in their body?

Kavouras: This is a, this is a great question, and unfortunately, uh, we do not know a lot of things as you would expect. Unfortunately, for water, there are very few studies, but I can tell you what is happening. Some things that you would expect, and some things that they look a little bit unusual. For example low drinkers, uh, they report that they never, they, they never get thirsty.

Joyce: Right.

Kavouras: Like I don't drink because I don't get thirsty. As soon as you start drinking more water, then the low drinker start reporting that, now that they consume more water, they're constantly thirsty. So, which is something that you would not expect

Joyce: Yeah, I mean that definitely is not what you would expect. It seems though like thirst is not the best indicator of whether you're drinking enough? Do you have a sense of why or why not that is?

Kavouras: Thirst usually gets activated in two conditions. So one of them is when you want to eat something. So if you eat something salty, you'll get thirsty. If you eat a very dry food, you'll get thirsty. Or you will get thirsty only when you really develop, at least, I would say 2% of dehydration—like a real dehydration. 

So, why this thing happens? I think it’s a nice protective mechanism that allow us to survive over the years. Because if you get thirsty easily, then thirst is such a potent stimulus, that if you get really thirsty, you concentrate on finding water. So when you concentrate to find water, you won’t go after the deer to kill it, so you bring food to your family. You are not gonna cultivate the Earth. You are not gonna get things that needs to be done to survive.

Uh, by now we do have a lot of evidence that drinking to thirst is not the optimal way—at least for exercise performance. You're not performing at your best if you wait to get thirsty to drink. Uh, but there are easy ways to assess whether you need more water, and people can use simple, uh, observations—I don't even want to call them tools—to see whether they're drinking enough.

If you're going to the bathroom every 15 minutes, and you’re peeing, and your urine is extremely diluted, like looking almost like water, then it means you're overdoing it. Um, If it has been three four five hours, and you have been to the bathroom at all, means you're not drinking enough. So this is—how often you go to the bathroom could be a very simple and effective way to give you an idea of whether you need to drink more water.

Many times people ask me, ‘how much water do you drink?’ I really do not know how much I drink. I know that I have access to water, um, most of the time. When I work in my office, I always have water with me, so I can drink water throughout the day. But nowadays we do have access everywhere. And because we do have access everywhere, we sometimes forget that we have to drink water. 

Frick-Wright: That’s Stephanie Joyce talking to Stavros Kavouras and Outside’s Aleta Burchyski.

This episode was written and produced by Stephanie, with editing by Mike Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver. It was brought to you by Bob’s Red Mill—providing real nutrition for real athletes. More at bobsredmill.com. The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media PRX.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.