How many glasses of water do we need to drink per day? This is one of the most frequently asked questions in my practice. The primary reason for the focus on this issue arises from the fact that the typical American diet is severely lacking in water. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes is a diet which is inherently high in water. A diet high in processed foods and animal foods is a diet which is inherently low in water. The water craze of the West arose in response to the latter.
Water is the element of the Kidneys. From even a simple biomedical model, clearly the Kidneys control water metabolism. It is believed in the West that the Kidneys need to be “flushed”, or cleaned out. But in Chinese medicine, there is no such concept. There is Kidney Qi, Kidney Yin, and Kidney Yang. These can be vacuous, they may be unrooted, they may produce heat of various sorts, but they never create anything which needs to be flushed. In a practical sense, this means that over-ingestion of water is not the cure for all Kidney imbalances. I see people consuming large quantities of water with the idea that this will flush away fat. In fact, this only produces more Dampness.
The point I wish to clarify in this article is regarding the continuous ingestion of bottled water throughout the day. People carry bottles of water everywhere. They drink them constantly. They refer to being “hydrated” as if they were in the Mojave Desert. In my opinion, this is a sort of neurotic, obsessive behavior which does not lead to health. Consuming a diet high in water is good. Drinking extra water during times of high activity is good. Being aware of one’s own water needs is good. Not being able to go 5 minutes without water is a disorder.
Chinese medicine teaches that when consumed with meals, water should be ingested only in small quantities so as to not quell the digestive fire (wash away digestive enzymes). Drinking warm or room temperature liquids during the day is also fine. For many people, drinking water constantly places strain on the Kidneys. Frequent urination is depleting to Kidney Qi, and this is particularly true when one has to wake at night to urinate. My biggest concern as a practitioner is that carrying around a bottle of water gives a person a false sense of “living a healthy lifestyle,” when the rest of their diet and lifestyle could actually use some work. It places every person who buys water into the category of health enthusiast. And the most important issue for me, is the lack of attention to doing it. I find bottles of water in my office each week, left by patients who are not paying attention to what they are doing, but instead are just going through the motions. If there is anything at all I believe about health, it is that it only arises from paying attention. I feel that the best advice regarding water consumption can be adapted from Zen – that is, drink when thirsty, eat when hungry.