Rethinking Hydration: A Pilot’s Perspective

The following article was written by Steve Lerum, one of our readers. He is an avid fan of the benefits of proper hydration who happens to fly 777’s for a leading commercial airline. His article is informative and sheds light on the subject of dehydration during airline flights. If any readers have anything to share as a guest writer, I would be happy to post it. After all, this blog is for everyone interested in learning about water.

Rethinking Hydration

“Time for a jailbreak?” The purser’s question caught me off guard. It took a moment for me to realize she was offering us a bathroom break. As I hung up the phone, I reflected on how our flight deck routine has changed since 9-11. The new security procedures, while necessary, are a pain in the, well, you know. As a result, many of us have fallen into the habit of holding back on our water consumption. After all, more bathroom breaks are more work for everyone. Not to mention interrupting the flight attendants’ meal service. Not to mention our heavy workload up front as, ever vigilant, we scan the horizon for what dangers lurk.

Anyone who has been in aviation long enough to run a checklist knows that airplanes dry people out…it’s no secret. Air Force flight surgeons were nagging us decades ago to drink more water. Well, coffee has water and so do sodas, right? Problem solved? Not so fast. As it turns out, there are two factors we need to understand about adequate hydration; first, the quantity of fluids we ingest and second, the quality (that is, the chemistry) of those fluids. Both are crucial to our long-term health.

Let’s start with quantity. How much water should we drink? A pretty good rule of thumb is; drink about half your body weight in ounces every day. A 120 pound person should drink 60 ounces (about 2 liters), while a 200 pound person should drink up to 3 liters. The amount required will depend on such variables as exercise and hot weather.

Roughly two-thirds of our body weight is water. Water is a critical component of every system in our bodies…cells, blood, organs, tissues, brains, lungs and muscles. When we don’t drink enough to replace what we lose every day to perspiration, exhalation and elimination, we become dehydrated. What are the symptoms? Fatigue, gastric disorders, depression, abnormal blood pressure…gee, sounds like a 6 day international trip!

Here’s the problem; we think we drink enough water, but the truth is, most of us don’t… especially when we spend half our time in an industrial strength dehydrator called a jet. Dehydration decreases our blood volume, lowering its ability to carry oxygen and nutrients to our cells. Our digestion is impaired, as is our ability to eliminate toxins. A 3% drop in cellular hydration equals a 10% drop in mental and physical performance.

Another problem is perception. We think we are hungry but we are really thirsty, so we eat to satisfy cravings that should be satisfied by drinking. Not that we can’t get water from food…we can, but not nearly enough. When we eat food to satisfy our thirst, two bad things happen. First, we don’t get enough water to properly digest our food (can you spell indigestion?…anyone?…anyone?). Second, by trying to satisfy our thirst with food, we take in too many calories (why is my uniform shrinking?). This can start a vicious cycle of weight gain. Next time you start to salivate thinking about that crew meal, try taking a big hit of water, then wait awhile. If your hunger subsides, you were just thirsty. If not, then go ahead and eat. In flight, when I remember to drink water every 15 to 30 minutes, I feel more alert and not so hungry.

One more point on hydration. Many of the things we enjoy drinking…coffee, soda, alcohol…are diuretics; they dry us out. I know, I know, you gotta draw the line somewhere, and I like my Starbucks as much as anyone. But the next time your body screams “I need coffee!”, you might find that drinking a half a bottle of water gives you more energy and alertness than that Venti White Chocolate Mocha.

While bathroom breaks are a hassle, I’ve stopped being polite. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate I say, then…well, when you gotta go, you gotta go. The way I see it, the only thing I have to give up for proper hydration is…kidney stones…ouch!

Now on to the quality (chemistry) question. About two years ago, my wife, a dental hygienist, asked me to do some research for her on the topic of acidity vs. alkalinity. She noticed that her patients with the most gum inflammation and bleeding were the ones who drank the most coffee, sodas, and sports drinks. Suspecting that acid was the source of the problem, she began to recommend the most alkaline toothpaste she could find. The results were impressive. The change within the mouth reflected tremendous improvement in oral health, at least for those patients that tried it.

She had read articles in medical and dental journals in recent years about the connection between oral health and heart health, and she wanted to find out more about it. She asked me to spend some time online during my trips to get information about the connection between systemic health and acid/pH balance. Since I’d only had about a million layovers in Seoul, and still had so much to see there, I resisted. But curiosity got the better of me and I began to do some basic research.

PH, as I found out, is a measure of acidity or alkalinity in a solution. It means “Potential of Hydrogen”, and is a logarithmic scale from zero (acid) to fourteen (base). For example, battery acid is 0 and liquid drain cleaner is 14 (probably a good plan to avoid these two extremes in our diet). Neutral is 7.0, and that is pretty typical of tap water from the average kitchen sink.

Here is where it gets interesting. Since pH is a logarithmic scale, each point below neutral is ten times more acidic. Many popular bottled waters clock in at around 6.0, which make them 10 times more acidic than tap water. Black coffee is about 5.0, making it 100 times more acidic. Most sodas and “sports drinks” (think Gatorade) are 3.0 or less. Do the math…pH of 3.0 is 10,000 times more acidic than a neutral pH of 7. Phosphoric acid, a component of Coke, has a pH of 1.1, almost 1,000,000 (one million) times the acidity of tap water! Good for dissolving rust, but maybe not so good for our health.

Not that the stomach can’t handle a Coke now and then. It can. Our bodies have a remarkable ability to metabolize almost anything. The problem is this; when we bombard our bodies with an overload of acidic drinks on a regular basis, our reserves of buffering minerals eventually give out. At some point, we become unable to eliminate all the toxins we have ingested. Our bodies will do whatever it takes to maintain a systemic pH of around 7.365. So when we overtax our system with acidic beverages (and food…but that’s another story for another day), we enter a condition called “acidosis”. Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, digestive and sinus problems, as well as reduced immunity to colds, on up to more serious symptoms. If our tissue pH gets too low, we die. Before that point, however, our system will leach every part of our body (including bones) extracting alkaline minerals (like calcium) needed to keep metabolism on track and our pH balanced. Some in the medical field, in fact, think that an over-acidic system is an underlying cause of osteoporosis as well as a number of other degenerative diseases.

Well, what are the action steps? First, drink clean, filtered water… lots of it (you can always ask a flight attendant for extra water bottles…a little begging might be in order). Second, avoid or minimize drinks that are acidic and/or diuretic. Water is the only beverage our bodies really need if we are consuming a proper diet. In fact, drinking anything else can put stress on our system. And don’t we all need more stress! Third, do your own research. My wife now has her patients go home and Google “acidosis” and “alkaline/pH balance”. There is a wealth of information available. As your system becomes less acidic, you may find, as my wife and I have, that you feel better and have more energy. You might even lose a few pounds. I did.

So when the purser asks, “Time for a jail-break?”, the answer is “YOU BET!”

To your health,

Steve Lerum
B-777 F/O


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