You’re busy at work when the clock strikes 2 p.m. Suddenly, you realize your energy has fallen off a cliff. Any excitement you had for the day has faltered. You might even feel more stressed.
But instead of darting (or stumbling) for the Keurig coffee maker, you might want to grab a glass of water.
Drinking the right amount of water has a host of health benefits: It aids with digestion, circulation, metabolism, nutrient absorption, metabolite and toxin elimination, and more. But it also has a little-discussed perk: It can help relieve stress. In fact, hydration can help boost your mood and overall mental health.
In this article, we’ll explain the link between dehydration, mood and stress, and give you three handy tactics for getting ahead of it all.
What is Stress?
First things first: What exactly is stress? When we talk about stress, we’re talking about the main stress hormone, cortisol.
Think of cortisol as part of your body’s natural alarm system. While you produce it daily in order to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle, your metabolism, your blood pressure and more … cortisol levels also surge during periods of stress.
When something threatens you physically or mentally, your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered, flipping on your fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. This signals your adrenal glands to flood more cortisol into your bloodstream, which can influence other functions, like stimulating the release of glucose from your liver through a process called gluconeogenesis.
This is great in short bursts. After all, cortisol can give you a quick boost of energy while suppressing non-essential functions. But with chronic stress, cortisol levels become unbalanced … and health risks can follow.
The Tie Between Dehydration and Stress
Here’s where dehydration comes in…
Cortisol levels are affected by any type of stressor: mental or physical. Dehydration, you may have guessed, is a form of stress. After all, over half of your body is made up of water (the exact percentage depends on a variety of factors, including your age). Water even makes up most of your organs. Your lungs, brain, heart, liver and kidneys are between 65% and 85% water. That’s why your organs need water to function well. If you’re dehydrated, your body isn’t running properly.
The right amount of water varies depending on your individual needs. However, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine generally recommends drinking 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) a day for women and 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) a day for men.
Keep in mind that those recommendations include more than your typical glass of water. They also account for fluids in food (such as vegetables and fruits) and other beverages. You might not think that's much, but Americans get about 20% of their water from food. Knowing that, women require about nine cups of fluid per day and men need about 12.5 cups.
When you drink less than the right amount of water, that’s when you’re at risk of dehydration. You may start to experience fatigue, confusion, a false sense of hunger and more, depending on the severity. At first, you may not even register what’s happening. By the time you realize you’re thirsty and start craving a cool, crisp glass of water, you’re already dehydrated.
One 2018 study highlighted that correlation. Researchers monitored the cortisol levels of 17 players during a soccer match. The mildly dehydrated group saw a pop in cortisol levels compared to the hydrated one, suggesting dehydration added to their stress. (If you’re an athlete, this is worth noting since studies show that optimal cortisol levels can significantly improve athletic performance.)
A 2020 meta-analysis of 21 studies also underscored the relationship between stress and dehydration. Findings suggested cortisol rises significantly when the body loses water.
As the cherry on top, you’re also at greater risk of dehydration when you’re stressed. Aside from forgetting to drink more water, your heart rate may rise and your breathing may increase, causing you to lose even more fluid.
In a nutshell, stress leads to more stress. And it’s important to stop that cycle in its tracks.
The Tie Between Dehydration and Mood
There are also a number of studies that point to hydration lowering your risk of anxiety and depression.
In a 2018 study of more than 3,000 people, those who drank more water had a lower risk of depression than those who drank less. Researchers also found that those who didn’t drink enough water were more anxious, although the connection between dehydration and depression was stronger.
In another study, researchers again found a link between water and mood. They found that those who usually drink greater amounts of water felt less happy when that amount dropped. And when researchers increased all of the participants’ water intake, they felt happier. The amount of water they typically drank didn’t matter.
3 Quick Tips for Managing Your Stress
To sidestep the ill effects of dehydration, try to drink enough water to prevent yourself from feeling thirsty.
Of course, water intake isn’t the only factor when it comes to stress, mood and overall mental health. But when dealing with life’s stressors, it’s good to keep in mind the ways your daily habits can alleviate any struggles.
With that in mind, here’s how you can stay on top of your water intake and keep tabs on your stress levels:
Have a water bottle handy. Don’t rely on grabbing water at your work, gym or while going about your day. By carrying a water bottle, you don’t have to take the time to search out (or buy) a drink. Plus, it’s environmentally friendly and healthier if made from non-toxic materials.
Remind yourself to drink. Sometimes, we can get caught up in our day and forget to hydrate. Luckily, there are a number of apps and alarms that can help you drink up. You can also use a smart water bottle that flashes when it’s time to drink.
Monitor your cortisol levels. Finally, you can watch your cortisol levels in real time to note if you should manage your stress. To help control your stress levels, request access to Pardigm.com's rapid cortisol test.
Before you go, we have one more question for you: How can we get better? Here at Pardigm.com, our goal is to gather the best information to help you understand the science of stress. If you think we missed anything in our research, please let us know here.