How to Hydrate for Health
ShenNong was relaxing one hot day in the mountains. Without a smartPhone to do something “efficient” (take a moment to remember how that felt!), he was instead fancy free to contemplate the beauty of nature about him.
He took his repose in the shade of an old Camellia tree. A few leaves drifted down on the gentle breeze, landing in the bowl of water he had just heated on a small fire. Taking a sip, ShenNong smiled imperceptibly, pleasantly surprised at the delicate flavour and sense of refreshment. Serendipitously, the exquisite beverage that we call Tea was discovered.
We could talk here of Tea. But more fundamental here is that ShenNong was drinking his water warm. Even on a hot day! Before you dismiss this as the idiosyncrasy of a mad old hermit, consider that ShenNong is revered in Asia as the father of both Agriculture and Herbal medicine. Perhaps he was onto something…
In Acupuncture theory, the Stomach is understood to like moisture and warmth. Intuitively this makes sense since digestion involves breaking down food in a process that essentially equates to cooking. Even if you want to eat your food raw, it will be cooked for you by your stomach. The stomach works on the food altering it both physically and chemically.
The body expends a huge amount of energy to produce highly concentrated hydrochloric acid as one of the main digestive agents. The simple chemistry of it is that digestion is most efficient at an acidity level of 1 to 2 on the pH scale and at a temperature between 37-42 Celcius (slightly above the normal core temperature of the body).
Drinking water at meals should therefore preferably be kept to an amount which simply aids swallowing. Liquids consumed will dilute the stomach acid, reducing digestive efficiency. Cold drinks in particular are less desirable as the body must work to raise the temperature of the stomach contents for optimal digestion.
Weight Loss vs Brain Development
Some people advocate drinking ice-cold water as a weight-loss technique (by forcing the body to expend energy to regulate internal body temperature) but the digestion was not designed with this in mind and this method comes, at the expense of health of the digestive and other natural processes. Actually there is good evidence for the thesis that the rapid evolution of the human brain and its continued good heath and development owe a lot to the support of a strong digestive system supported by warm & cooked foods and drinks. See here.
You body has complex systems designed to maintain a remarkably steady optimal working temperature and chemistry, no matter the changes in the external environment or level of activity. This balancing act is called Homeostasis. Regulation of temperature is, by design, mostly controlled by your largest organ (the skin), through opening and closing of the pores and through sweating.
Cooling down or Warming up?
Actually, placing cold water into the stomach in order to cool down doesn’t really work. It's a bit like opening the refrigerator door to cool a room. Yes, there is an initial feeling of cool as the air falls out of the fridge. But its short-lived: the fridge compressor immediately kicks in to cool the fridge – and the room, overall, is actually heated.
In the case of cold fluids in the stomach, the rest of the body converts chemical energy into heat to raise the stomach to its optimal temperature. This actually raises the overall body temperature. Importantly, the direction of this heat is inwards, concentrating heat in the interior of the body.
Actually, ShenNong had it right! The best way to cool anything down is to radiate from the inside towards the outside. As he drinks his tea, warmth is delivered into the very centre of his body. The resulting direction of temperature flow is then from the stomach to the exterior. This is the natural direction of heat movement in the body and aids our normal body processes. This includes the correct movement of fluids and the elimination of toxins and excess heat through the skin in the sweat. This is akin to opening the windows to let out not just the heat, but the stale air too.
Nutrients are also carried in the same direction, from the stomach, across the gut wall into the body. This positive physiological effect of warm liquid in the stomach, and radiation outwards is enshrined in Chinese medicine. The character 湯 meaning “warm water” is often included in the names of herbal formula. The Chinese did not include this in the formula name as a mere suggestion of how to swallow the medicine. The 湯 is an integral ingredient in the formula, as important as any other, ensuring the optimal absorption and delivery of the active ingredients where needed. We can extend this concept to our everyday food and drink with Hippocrates’ general admonition to “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”.
How to Drink a Cold Drink
OK, I know I am not going to convert you all in one go. So for now, one way to benefit from an ice-cold drink is to take a sip and to keep the liquid in your mouth for a while until it warms up a little. Swallowing this fluid will then at least serve as a temperature transfer system by carrying warmth from the top of the body (usually the most overheated section) downwards. (Read ZuKan SokuNetsu to understand the ideas and benefits behind this temperature transfer!)
This idea is also one way to understand the second part of the old saying “Drink your Food, Eat your Drink”. In this case, keeping a drink in your mouth for any length of time will actually stimulate the saliva glands such that the fluid becomes thick and carries saliva with it into the stomach as it is then “eaten”. This has numerous benefits we can discuss elsewhere.
Sticking with the topic of water and heat, my next newsletter looks at what Global Warming looks like in the environment of the human body and what we can do to avoid this terrible fate.
Now please enjoy a nice cup of tea (or, yes, perhaps just warm water)!