We all know water to be one of the healthiest things we can put in our body. Pure water supports our life force unlike any other beverage. And yet there are some important nuances to consider. Quantity, quality, temperature and timing are all critical factors.
Ayurveda always encourages us to pay more attention, and how water affects your body is actually a really important thing to notice. Drinking water, and especially excess water, can disturb digestion if taken at inopportune times. It can compromise effective processing of nutrients, creating a feeling of bloating or indigestion.
It can be tempting to seek an external guideline about the “right” amount of water to drink every day – but in truth, it depends on your digestive strength, body size, urinary system, weather, and how active you are that day.
The best guidance according to Ayurveda is to observe how much water your body actually needs on a given day, which is communicated through our reflex urge for thirst. The reflex of thirst, a true biological thirst, is the sign the body is prepared to consume water and will digest it well.
For many of us, however, the sensation of thirst is not one we are used to feeling or looking for. We may not recognize our own signs of true thirst. Getting curious about your body’s unique signals is an excellent first step of self-awareness and learning your own body’s language.
Thirst can show up as a slightly dry mouth, a feeling of lightness in the body, and a natural interest in drinking water. However, if we are habituated to drink water consistently throughout the day, we may have trained our mind to reach for the water bottle in response to other cues, like hunger, anxiety, or boredom.
In addition to the quantity of water, it also matters when we drink, especially in relation to when we eat food. Excess water can dilute our digestive enzymes and acids and reduce the effectiveness of digestion. Cold water can cause the channels of the G.I. tract to constrict, interfering with absorption and effective peristalsis.
Here are some guidelines about drinking water, directly from one of the ancient texts of Ayurveda, the Astanga Hrdayam. Choose one to try over the next week and see how you feel.
- As a general rule, always drink warm water rather than cold. Warm water enhances digestion, helps remove waste matter (āma) from the body, gives a feeling of lightness, calms a cough, helps asthma and any throat ailments, cleanses the urinary bladder, and pacifies Vāta and Kapha doshas. Cold water dampens digestive power. (That being said, cold water is best if someone feels faint or dizzy, has been vomiting, has food poisoning, or is intoxicated.)
- When eating, take small sips of warm water throughout the meal to help lubricate the movement of food in the stomach and intestines. Don’t drink large gulps, as too much water will dilute the digestive juices. Small amounts of warm water interspersed with food helps the food mix well with the digestive acids and supports complete digestion of nutrients.
- Avoid drinking a large amount of water right before or right after a meal. Leave about an hour or so on either side of the meal, so excess water doesn’t interfere with the complete breakdown and absorption of food.
- If you generally have a weak appetite at meal time, which is a sign of poor overall digestive strength, then avoid drinking excess water between meals. Drink when you’re thirsty, yes, but do not encourage yourself to drink more based on the misplaced idea that more water is always good for you.
- If you are prone to irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, or frequent abdominal fullness/distention or bloating, then drink less fluid throughout the day. Excess fluid intake will aggravate these conditions.
For all of us, it’s generally best to drink warm water whenever we feel thirsty, so I recommend boiling water and filling a thermos or insulated water bottle to take with you throughout the day. Have warm water with your meals, including at a restaurant (I’ve learned to order “a mug of hot water” – otherwise an uninitiated server often brings the steaming liquid in a water glass, which can be hard to pick up!).
If you just can’t stand hot water, it’s still a good idea to boil it and then let it cool. This will remove impurities and make the water lighter and less likely to compromise digestion. Boiled water cooled to room temperature also pacifies pitta dosha.
Who knew drinking water could be so nuanced?! Start paying extra attention to how you feel after you drink water, and see what you notice. Like me, you may come to love warm water!