Hydration is so important for so many reasons; it quenches thirst, keeps your body running smoothly, and gives you a reason to get up from your desk and get your steps in on your way to the water cooler. But you might not know that studies show staying hydrated can help your mental health, too. Mental health is physical health, after all.
I’ve personally seen the power that water has in this area. Once, when a friend of mine and I were having about our experiences with mental health, they told me, “Whenever I feel depressed or anxious, I just drink a glass of water. Most of the time that fixes it.”
Honestly, I didn’t believe them at all, because I didn’t think that a solution could be that simple. But then I actually tried it. When I felt overwhelmed by negative feelings or painful anxiety symptoms, I reached for a glass of water first. It didn’t erase what I was feeling, but it helped way more than I thought it would. Hydrating isn't a substitute for mental healthcare like seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, but making sure I'm hydrated during anxiety or depressive episodes is now a part of my regular routine.
That’s backed up by research. A 2018 study published in the World Journal of Psychiatry found that, among a sample of 3,327 Iranian adults, drinking five or more glasses of plain water daily was associated with a lower risk of depression. For participants who drank two glasses of water or less daily, they had an increased risk for depression (73% increase for men and 54% increase for women). A 2014 study analyzing the water intake and mood of 52 adults published in PLOS One showed that increasing water intake (2.4 liters of water or more a day) decreased feelings of fatigue, confusion, and sleepiness. People who drank that amount were happier and more positive than those who didn’t.
If you take medication for mental health conditions, you might want to be especially careful of getting dehydrated. Some psychiatric meds can affect the way you sweat, causing hyperhidrosis (excess sweating) or hypohidrosis (deficient sweating). Both of those conditions can make you dehydrated, which can be dangerous. You should consult your doctor to determine what the risks of your specific medications are, and how you should use hydration to mitigate those risks.
Sometimes the symptoms of dehydration and heatstroke require immediate medical assistance. The Mayo Clinic recommends that people seek assistance for heatstroke and dehydration if they or someone they’re with experiences a high body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea for 24 hours or more, bloody or black stool, rapid and/or shallow breathing, racing heart rate, or a throbbing headache. They also recommend immediately seeing a medical professional if someone experiences an altered mental state or behaviors like confusion, agitation, slurring their speech, irritability, or being delirious.
Dehydration doesn’t just harm your mental health; it can harm your brain function as well. An analysis of 33 studies on dehydration concluded that dehydration — especially when someone exercised outside in the summer months — negatively impacted cognitive function, including memory, focus, and critical thinking.
All this is especially important to remember in the summer months, when dehydration from heat exposure is a huge risk. In summer 2019, record-breaking heat waves are sweeping the globe, from India to Alaska to Europe. With the climate crisis exponentially increasing in severity, it’s important to remember that rising temperatures threaten human health in a myriad of ways, including our brain function and emotional health.
Environmental racism and classism also has an impact on hydration and mental health. In addition to other problems like muscle loss and dental damage, people who were exposed to contaminated water or who went without water in Flint, Michigan, experienced memory loss, brain fog, and fatigue.
Most often, improving your mental health takes a lot more than drinking water. Talk therapy, grounding techniques, medications, or support groups may be needed, among other methods. But when people have access to clean water, it’s a powerful and easy tool to use for your mental health.