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Hydration Alert: Is Dehydration Affecting Your Clients’ Minds?

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are serious health illnesses, and while emphasizing the importance of hydration when outdoors dominates the news, many forget how dehydration truly impacts the body and mind. For years, scientists have advised people to stay hydrated by drinking eight glasses of water a day, but as a recent article in The New York Times points out, strictly following this advice is simply impractical and based on assumption.

Being dehydrated is not necessarily linked to not drinking enough water or overexertion. Those with mental or medical health conditions could easily become dehydrated without realizing it. As a result, you need to help your clients understand a bit more about dehydration by learning a few fundamental principles of how staying hydrated relates to overall health, including.

Dehydration and the body

Dehydration can lead to problems with logical thought, inability to move as expected and additional problems. Some clients, including with mental health illnesses may report increased appetites. While increased appetite can be a symptom of major mental illnesses, it could be an indicator of dehydration. Meanwhile, changes in mood can reflect the body’s state of dehydration.

For example, dark, concentrated urine can be caused by a variety of issues, ranging from impaired renal function to medication side effects.  As a result, your clients may conclude something is terribly wrong. Yet, dark urine is actually one of the most common symptoms of dehydration. The solution to this problem is education about dehydration.

Some of the symptoms of dehydration, reports MedlinePlus, include the following:

  • Fewer or reduced urges to urinate.
  • Darkly-colored urine.
  • Fainting.
  • Changes in ability to process information, including trouble concentrating.
  • Fatigue.
  • Dry skin and mouth
  • Changes in appetite.

While you may believe those suffering from dehydration are likely to avoid food, you are making an assumption based on typical stereotypes about dehydration. As a result, you need to understand how dehydration can actually influence the body’s perception of hunger.

Dehydration and weight

Clients who are overweight or obese may turn to many diets to lose weight. But, some diets can be dangerous, and advising clients to make radical dietary changes will only create a loop of negative reinforcement. In other words, the client may feel he or she is unable to control the urge to eat.

Rather than focusing on restrictive weight management regimens, recent studies at the University of Michigan suggest reducing the prevalence of obesity on a population level could be as simple as emphasizing the importance of staying hydrated, reports CNN. In other words, those with higher body mass indices (BMIs), specifically those with a BMI above 25, may be more likely to be dehydrated.

Unfortunately, monitoring water consumption was an ineffective means of measuring water content in the body. Instead, researchers monitored water levels in the urine, which rose when those with higher BMIs consumed more water and water-containing foods. As a result, the evidence suggests the body’s need for water may be interpreted by the brain as hunger.

Dehydration and mental illness

Think about the last time you spent a large amount of time outdoors in the heat. Did you feel anxious after an hour or so? It was not just the heat it; the drop in water content through urination or sweat increases irritability and anxiousness, reports The Huffington Post. But, did you feel like opening up a big bottle of soda? Probably not.

Why does the body influence what you drink?

The reason for this revolves around how your brain interprets changes in the osmolality of fluids in your tissues. In fact, the majority of water intake is through food, not beverages. Suddenly drinking a large volume of fluids, or drinking the wrong type of fluids, such as those with high sugar content, can overwhelm the stomach and put the body into a state similar to shock, which can cause nausea, dizziness and vomiting.

But, this can lead to the development of major mental health problems too. For example, many mental illnesses present with common symptoms, such as increased irritability or anxiety. However, these are also symptoms of dehydration. The problems with mental health and dehydration do not end at changes in mood either.

Dehydration may cause psychotic symptoms

Dehydration can result in a dramatic loss of electrolytes from the body through urination. As the body attempts to compensate for lower osmotic pressure, a measure of the pressure between external and internal fluids across cellular membranes, it begins to excrete sodium and electrolytes from the body. This can result in a state of hyponatremia, which can cause hallucinations or coma, which some may interpret as catatonia, reports MedlinePlus.

When dehydration reaches the point of causing hallucinations, emergency medical intervention is required. Failure to restore the osmotic balance in the body can lead to organ failure and permanent brain damage. Moreover, the changes in mental capacity leading up to this point can further exacerbate the dehydration.

For example, a client experiencing anxiousness or hallucinations may be exhibiting a mental health crisis. As a result, the client may be admitted for inpatient hospitalization, but that does not mean he or she will have lab work completed immediately. Consequently, all persons involved in the care of those with mental health problems need to ensure their clients are getting fluids regularly from both drinking and eating.

Final thoughts

Being dehydrated can be much more than an inconvenience. It can be deadly, and it can lead to the misdiagnosis of mental health problems. As a social worker, clinician, caregiver or advocate for better health among the community you serve, you need to thoroughly understand how dehydration can impact the body. Above all else, teach your clients to E.A.T. to stay hydrated:

  • E – Eat foods with a high water content.
  • A – Avoid eating when hunger strikes at first. Drink a cup of water instead.
  • T – Think clearly, or you could be dehydrated.

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