Cognitive Fitness Chapter 4 – Hydration – Are you dehydrated?

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations could understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. Last time we looked at the importance of starting off the day with your daily intake of nutrition and breakfast… this time we look at hydration – clearly it’s important to have a drink with your breakfast too!

Why is hydration important?

Athletes and sportsmen have known for some time that hydration is important to success. It’s not just because it makes the body’s physical systems work better, but because below a certain level of hydration the human brain doesn’t work as well as it should. Therefore, when considering the management of the workplace, it is imperative to understand that your employees need to remain hydrated in order to maximise their cognitive performance.

We know from research that cognitive performance drops sharply if body water levels drop by just 2% of body weight (for a 12 stone male that’s just over 1.5 litres of water). No matter how mild, dehydration can cause an imbalance in bodily functions and symptoms include headaches, feeling tired and weak, confusion and mood swings.

Dehydration can adversely affect cognitive capacity and interfere with cognitive performance associated with skills such as perception, spatial ability, attention, immediate memory and brain/physical interaction – so it’s pretty important in giving you your best cognitive performance every day.

What causes us to dehydrate?

In a typical day under normal circumstances the average person loses 2-3 litres of water through sweating, urinating and breathing. If the workplace environment you are in is air conditioned, then the air may also be cool and dry. As air conditioning cools the air, it removes moisture from it and the dry air pulls moisture from your lungs as you breathe. So even if you’re not thirsty or hot, you will still be losing fluids more quickly than in conditions where the air’s relative humidity is higher.

The amount each person needs can also vary according to aspects such as age, climate, diet (i.e. low calorie), physical activity, exercise and pregnancy. One of the key things to remember is that if you wait until you are thirsty, you are already becoming dehydrated.

What should we drink?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends a daily intake of 2.5 litres of water for men and 2 litres for women (from a combination of fluid and food sources), with 70-80% of this coming from drinks. Some experts contest that the “8 glasses of water per day” is a myth, and that there is no solid evidence to support that contention. Other sources suggest that 1.5-2 litres per day is required by the average person (source: Bupa).

Many people can’t stomach drinking that volume of just water alone, so here are some ideas to vary your sources of hydration:

  • Use a fruit cordial with low levels of sugar and additives
  • Add a slice of lemon / lime / orange / cucumber to your water to add flavour and fragrance
  • Have a glass of water with your tea and coffee (and your wine, beer etc.!)
  • Fruit and some veg contain a lot of water (cucumber and lettuce are 96% water and tomatoes are 94%) so can be great additions to your meals

Some other things to remember when choosing beverages:

  • Fizzy drinks, fruit juices, smoothies and coconut water are often loaded with sugar
  • Coffee, tea and other caffeine based drinks can have a good impact on your mental performance, but they are also diuretics, contributing to dehydration
  • Milk was shown in a recent experiment on TV as the best hydrator, although since it also contains protein, sugar and fat, we think it’s likely that it’s best used as a contributor to hydration, rather than something to drink all day
  • Alcohol is a notorious dehydrator – like other diuretics it encourages the kidneys to expel more than you have drunk. It also reduces the production of the hormone vasopressin (the anti-diuretic hormone), which tells the kidneys to reabsorb water rather than flushing it out through the bladder. Some studies have shown that the amount of fluid we pee can be 4 times as much as the amount of alcohol we’ve drunk


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How to be “hydration aware”

Being alert to what you are drinking, the conditions around you which impact hydration (i.e. heat, cold, dryness), and what to do to ensure you stay hydrated is often easier said than done. It’s far easier to ignore the thirst when you start to feel it, or delay getting a drink until you’ve finished something, rather than actively planning ahead to ensure you never feel thirsty.

There are some easy things to do – always having a water bottle with you, particularly when you’re travelling, working in places you know tend to have dry or when you go into long meetings – sometimes there just isn’t anything to drink unless you take your own! You can encourage others to bring / have drinks during the meeting, particularly if you see attention or focus flagging in the group.

In a busy day you might forget to drink enough fluids, so why not put an alarm in your calendar every 2 hours and stop for a “hydration break”?

Finally, remember your urine – it’s a great indicator of dehydration. The colour should be light yellow and if it’s any darker, it’s time to take action. So those water cooler moments deliver more than just gossip and networking!

The old adage has it that when you’re in the office, you have those “water cooler” moments. We also know that having a drink (coffee, tea etc.) is a good way to get together with colleagues to catch up, network, socialise and share information. All these aspects are great indicators of solid team performance, so don’t just get some water – use it as an opportunity to see colleagues, catch up and socialise when you are having your hydration break.

If you’re interested in our thoughts about other things that contribute to great team performance, check out our blogs on Knowledge Worker Productivity.

Give your brain a great day – don’t let it dry out!

Next time we’ll tell you all about the third factor – sleep, so get a good night!

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