Watch Out! Old Man Winter is Deceptively Dehydrating

When winter weather hits, most people have their list of health and safety considerations: Don’t use icy sidewalks or drive in heavy snow; avoid prolonged exposure in freezing temperatures; get a flu shot; take plenty of vitamin C; and so forth. But when it comes to hydration, well, this critical health concern typically takes a backseat in winter.

It makes sense that dehydration isn’t on everybody’s mind during the winter. For one thing, it’s cold! The association just isn’t there. Secondly, sweating—most people think they are losing fluid— this occurs far less frequently. Third of all, people drink beverages to stay warm and either feel too full to drink enough water or falsely assume those warm, caffeinated and cocoa-laden drinks count as fluids (of course by now, all our Water Street readers know these types of drinks can do more hydration harm than good).

The reality is winter can be full of deceptively dehydrating pitfalls if you’re not careful. Sweat evaporates more quickly in cold, dry air, so you don’t get the physical cue that your body is losing water. The body’s thirst response is also lower in colder temperatures, so there’s another cue lost. When you “see your breath”, that’s vapor caused by respiratory water loss, which occurs at a higher rate in colder weather. Your body also uses—and loses—more water in maintaining body temperature and shivering in cold weather. How many times have you said, “I’m too cold, and drinking that glass of water will only make me colder”? Lastly, and most fascinating, take a look at yourself the next time you bundle up to go out in frosty weather. All those layers that keep the heat in force the fluid out, because your body has to work harder just to move you around under all the extra weight of the clothes you’re wearing!

Now, I’m not suggesting you go out in –10° weather in a T-shirt and shorts (unless you are my teenage son who never seems to want to wear long pants or a jacket whatever the temperature!), or that you hold your breath as much as possible outside. The key to staying hydrated in winter is the same as at any other time of the year: Be aware of what’s happening to your body and stay in the practice of maintaining proper hydration levels all day, every day before dehydration becomes an issue. Aside from the practice of avoid, replenish and prevent and other hydration habits that apply any time of the year, here are a few tips to help you stay hydrated in the face of winter-specific challenges:

  1. Drink plenty of water before and during winter exercise, whether indoors or out.
  2. Constantly sip water during the day. If you wait until you’re thirsty, the dehydration process is already underway!
  3. If you rely on warm drinks to warm up or stay warm, make smart choices such as decaffeinated tea, and keep a pitcher of water out so it’s room temperature. Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks.
  4. Alcohol and hot tubs never mix. Coupling alcohol, which dehydrates the body, with activities that warm you up creates a dehydration double whammy that can accelerate risks before you even realize it. Moreover, in places such as hot tubs where you don’t realize how much you’re sweating, the risk is even greater.
  5. Supplement with soup! Take care to include hydration-friendly foods in your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, gelatin and yogurt. Get twice the benefit by choosing foods that can warm you up and keep fluids up, such as soup and oatmeal.
  6. Keep your environment hydrated. The running heaters and burning fires that keep homes and offices warm in winter also tend to dry out that environment—and you! Take steps to humidify the rooms you spend your time in.

Don’t fall victim to winter’s dehydration deception this year. Be smart, be aware and constantly replenish. Reach for the water all day, every day.