Is Water the Best Medicine?


In 1979, when the ayatollahs in Iran seized power from the shah, the Iranian doctor Fereydoon Batmanghelidj -- like many other intellectuals -- ended up in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. One night, he found himself tending a fellow prisoner suffering from an acute and extremely painful stomach ulcer. Unfortunately, no medicines were available. In an effort to help, Batmanghelidj gave the inmate two glasses of water. Within 10 minutes, the man's pain disappeared. That incident would prove to be a turning point in Batmanghelidj's career.

After he was released, Batmanghelidj fled Iran in 1982 and immigrated to the United States. There, he began to write articles and books based on his belief that water might play a greater role in our bodies' health than anyone had realized. A summary of his ideas became the editorial article in the June 1983 issue of the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, and were reported on in The New York Times Science section. In his 1999 book Your Body's Many Cries for Water, Batmanghelidj explains that water regulates all body functions.

Our cells need water to transport proteins and enzymes to nerve endings. Water also acts as adhesive material between cells and transports sugars for energy. If the body becomes dehydrated, a water-rationing process kicks in. The brain is first in line to receive available water, followed by the kidneys and liver. After that, it's every organ for itself. Because of that, Batmanghelidj -- who died of pneumonia in 2004 -- thinks dehydration may be a cause of many types of degenerative diseases, like asthma, arthritis, hypertension, angina, diabetes (type 2), lupus and multiple sclerosis. How is it possible that wealthy Western people are dehydrated?

It turns out that most of what we drink -- tea, coffee, soft drinks and alcohol -- dehydrates the body. Coffee and alcohol in particular rob our bodies of fluids, which explains the dry throat we experience after a pub crawl and the advice we hear to drink a glass of water for every cup of coffee. According to the prevailing wisdom, a dry throat alone is not a good indicator of thirst. Batmanghelidj also believes the body lets us know we're thirsty by creating pain. His message is clear: Dehydration may be at the root of many sicknesses. And dehydration can be avoided.

Batmanghelidj is not the only one who believes that. Peter Ragnar, the American author of 17 books on health and longevity, supports the concept of "medicine water." He believes Alzheimer's disease could be the result of long-term dehydration of the brain. "People are not demented, only thirsty," says Ragnar. At least 80 percent of the brain is water. According to Ragnar, reducing the amount of fluid available to our brains by just two percent makes our short-term memory so muddled that we can't remember the names of friends or where we left our keys. Judging from the lifestyles of people in the West, Ragnar concludes that at least 75 percent may be dehydrated.

Under normal circumstances, everyone loses three to four litres (a gallon) of fluids a day. In order to replenish the supply, we have to drink some 80 percent of that (20 percent of the needed water generally comes from what we eat). Don't wait until we're thirsty, we are advised. Thirst, after all, is a sign that our bodies are experiencing an acute water shortage. Water straight from the tap does the trick, according to some. Others say we need filtered or distilled water to avoid flooding our bodies with toxins. The jury is still out. Polluted water obviously burdens the body, but so might water that has been completely purified and may lack key minerals. But wait: If disease can be prevented so easily, why hasn't the message reached the public? The explanation may be found in the way scientific research is conducted. The "random, double-blind, placebo-controlled" studies meant to establish the value of a particular medical intervention are expensive.

And who will finance this costly research into the potentially healing effects of water if water can't be patented and therefore is not commercially attractive to the pharmaceutical industry? No answer is in sight. In the meantime, the message seems clear: Drinking more water may be an inexpensive and painless way to safeguard our health.

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