Is Eight Glasses of Water Per Day Really Necessary?

Written by Dr. Jonathan Peterson, Updated on April 30th, 2021

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It's long been folk wisdom that people should drink eight glasses of water each day. Like many forms of “common wisdom,” proper hydration is a bit more complicated than that. In many cases, eight glasses may actually be more than you need—not that two liters of water a day is harmful.

Water challenges are pretty popular these days. You've surely seen at least one friend or co-worker lugging around a giant water bottle all day. On the other hand, it's possible to go too far. There have even been people that have died from drinking too much water, even if it's incredibly rare.

Drinking sufficient water is important because it helps preserve electrolyte balance. On the other hand, our bodies are quite effective at protecting this balance. In fact, every human has their own unique need for water based on a number of different parameters.

What Factors Determine How Much Water You Need?

The three most critical factors are activity level, temperature, and weight. When you exercise or work out, your body expends energy as heat, which is whisked away by sweat. The harder you exert yourself, the more water you need to replenish reserves and not overheat.

This is also why you need more water when it's hot outside. Your body sweats as a means to protect internal temperature in the case of sometimes-sweltering heat. Your body weight matters because the more mass you carry, the more water your body needs, and the more you'll need to protect your temperature and energy balance.

Fluid Balance Achievable Even Without Drinking Water

Many people don't realize that you can get your daily water requirements without even drinking a glass of water. It's obvious that this is so if you take the time to think about it. Almost all food and beverages that we consume, down to the driest grain, contain some small amount of water. Milk, juices, and soup contribute, as do caffeinated drinks such as coffee and soda.

Even drinks that have some diuretic effect still contribute to your hydration needs. This is not to mention the water content of the foods that you eat, including fruits, vegetables, and meat. Beer with very low alcohol content can still hydrate, though you quickly lose more than you gain as ABV increases.

How Do the Kidneys Preserve Fluid Balance?

The kidneys are the control center that modulates water/salt balance. Fluid retention depends on the influence of vasopressin, which preserves fluid balance. Vasopressin is one of many hormones produced by the pituitary gland (specifically, the posterior pituitary).

The organs send messages to the brain regarding water balance, and the brain responds to these nerve signals to either retain water or release water via urination.

Water Drinking Not Without Its Benefits

That's not to say that drinking a lot of water can't be beneficial for some people. Two big proven benefits of drinking eight glasses of water per day are that it can help folks with a history of bladder infection or kidney stones from experiencing another episode.

There's also some evidence that drinking water before a meal can help people manage smaller portions to lose weight.

Furthermore, there are some studies that suggest that some people may experience cognitive/emotional benefits from drinking water. Research shows that students scored better on tests when given water beforehand. There is also research that suggests that some people drink water compulsively to manage anxiety.

Fluid Balance Is Important, But Your Body Does Most of the Work

Drinking two liters of water per day likely won't cause you any problems and may even be rewarding if you're looking to prove to yourself that you can stick to a task.

On the other hand, the broad majority of people need far less water than is suggested due to the abundance of water ingested through other drinks and food. It's most important to remember to stay hydrated in the face of exertion and heat.

The more alcohol you drink, however, the more you should supplement with water. It's suggested that you should drink 16 ounces of water for every four to six ounces of liquor or for every can of beer.

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