Why we should drink water before meals

We all need to drink at least about two litres of water every day. Not juice, not sodas, not coffee, not tea: plain water. None of these other liquids have the properties of water, nor do they have the desirable effects of water on the body. Most of us don’t however, and so we are chronically dehydrated. Whether it is 75% or as high as 90%, it is evident that a very large portion of the population is chronically dehydrated.

The digestive system can be viewed as the most fundamental because everything used to sustain life in the body goes through it. In a very real sense, we are a digestive system, supplemented by a central nervous system and refined sense organs to allow us to devise ways to get food (and avoid being eaten), coupled to a refined locomotor system to allow us to gather the food (and run away when it is needed). Since every component of every cell in the body is made from the nutrients in our food, it is obvious that everything in the body depends on the digestive system. And for the digestive system, the single-most important element is the presence of ample amounts of water.

As soon as we even think about eating, the digestive system starts to get ready. The pancreas secretes a little jolt of insulin just in case carbohydrates come in, and the stomach starts to produce the highly acidic digestive gastric juice (pH of 1-2). This gastric juice is composed of only a little bit (0.5%) of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and a lot of salt, both sodium chloride (NaCl) and potassium chloride (KCl). The stomach has sensor cells to know exactly how much protein, fat and carbohydrates are present at any given time, and thus can adjust the production and composition of the gastric juice.

Although present in very small amounts, the hydrochloric acid is the essential compound for activating the enzymes responsible for breaking down protein, which is its main purpose because both fats and carbohydrates are mostly broken down in the intestine. But to make it to the stomach without causing any damage along the way, the two constituents of this highly corrosive acid, the hydrogen (H) and the chlorine ions (Cl), are produced separately and transported to the inside of the stomach where they combine to form the acid.

The delicate lining of the stomach with all its different kinds of highly specialised cells, is protected from the acidic gastric juice by an alkaline layer of mucus. This mucus is between 90 and 98% water, with some binding molecules and a few other components. It can be regarded as a blanket of water whose primary role in the stomach is to protect its lining from the gastric acid. The very thin mucosa that produces and maintains the mucus layer, also secretes sodium bicarbonate that sits in it, and neutralises the acid upon contact when it penetrates the layer, leaving only sodium chloride (salt), water and carbon dioxide. The neutralisation reaction is simple: HCl + NaHCO3 -> NaCl + H2O + CO2.

As we get progressively more dehydrated, not only are the stomach cells incapable of releasing adequate amounts of water into the stomach in order to allow for the proper mixing of the food and acid into chyme with the optimal consistency, but the thickness of the protective mucus layer decreases, thus allowing the acidic contents to damage the fragile lining. This is what eventually leads to stomach ulcers, according to a well known specialist in the matter, Dr Batmanghelidj, author of Your Body’s Many Cries for Water.

The contents of the stomach are churned and blended between one and three hours depending on the amount and composition, until the chyme is liquified and smooth, at which point it is poured into the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. It is in the small intestine that the real work of the break down and absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream takes place over a period of about 24 hours. The sensor cells in the duodenum will immediately determine the pH and composition of the chyme in order to send the messenger hormones to the pancreas to secrete the right amount of the alkaline, watery sodium bicarbonate solution necessary to neutralize the acid, and to the liver to secrete the right amount of bile needed for the breakdown of fats.

And even though the pancreas is known primarily for its role in producing and secreting insulin needed to clear the bloodstream of sugar, it is arguably its role in secreting this alkaline solution that is the most important. Indeed, as the duodenum does not have a protective layer of mucus as the stomach, it is this sodium bicarbonate solution that protects it and the rest of the small intestine from the devastating effects that the highly acidic chyme can have on it.

However, just as even partial dehydration causes the protective mucus layer in the stomach to dry out and shrink, making it permeable to the gastric acid that eats away at the delicate soft tissues, dehydration also causes the pancreas to be unable to secrete as much of the watery sodium bicarbonate solution as is required to fully neutralise the acidic chyme that, therefore, also damages the intestine. In fact, that there are several times more cases of duodenal as there are stomach ulcers attests to the reality that the lining of the intestine is all that much more fragile as it is unprotected and thus directly exposed to the excessively acidic chyme.

Therefore, water is of the utmost importance in protecting the lining of the stomach and intestine from the acid required for the break down of proteins into amino acids. Water is of the utmost importance for proper digestion and absorption of the nutrients in the food. And hence, water is of the utmost importance in maintaining a healthy digestive system meal after meal, day after day, and year after year throughout our life.

We must make sure that the body and digestive system are properly hydrated before eating. And for this, all we need to do is drink half a litre of plain water 30 minutes before meals, and not drink during nor after the meal for two to four hours.

Drinking during or soon after a meal will only dilute the chyme, making it excessively watery. This will not lower the pH, because water does not neutralise acid. It is best to ensure proper hydration prior to the start of the digestive process, providing the water necessary for the mucosa and pancreas to function optimally, and allow the stomach to adjust the water content of the chyme on its own. I personally usually wait two hours after a snack or small meal, and at least three to four hours after a large meal.

The time needed for the chyme to leave the stomach through the pyloric sphincter and enter the duodenum depends on its amount and composition. For example, fruit or any other food consisting mostly of simple sugars eaten on an empty stomach will make it into the intestine, and the sugar into the blood, in a matter of minutes: Since there is no protein, no acid is required for its breakdown in the stomach; and since there is no fat, no bile is required to break it down in the intestine.

Naturally, the time needed for the stomach to process a small meal will be less than that needed to process a large meal of more or less equal composition. In fact, given that our stomach is a very small pouch with an empty volume of about 50 ml, and a full volume of about 1 litre (up to a max of 2-3 litres when it is really extended),  the time needed for large meals increases substantially and disproportionately compared to smaller meals.

8 thoughts on “Why we should drink water before meals

  1. Great article! That is the type of information that
    are meant to be shared across the net. Shame on Google for now not
    positioning this publish higher! Come on over and visit my site .
    Thank you =)

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    • Hi Suzanne: You know, the order in which things appear in Google searches just reflects the traffic on these pages. So, it is, in fact, pure democratic popularity that determines the order. There’s personal touch at all. But thanks, and you’re welcome.

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  2. This is the best explanation I have ever heard for water consumption. Thanks for this! I do wonder however why things like tea are not good for hydration. It is just water with a few leaves, right? Or really, essence of leaves! Could you write a blog entry that explains this?

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    • Thank you very much for the great compliment Evelyn. In response to your question, I point you to one of the concluding sentences of another article, Water, ageing and disease: “Although chronic dehydration is so common that it is generalised, avoiding dehydration is very simple: drink water and unsweetened herbal teas or light green tea. Don’t drink coffee, black tea or alcohol-containing beverages because caffein and alcohol promote the excretion of free water, and therefore cause dehydration.”

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      • Thanks for the reply. But would the amount of caffeine in one cup of coffee be enough to make the person excrete the entire cup’s worth of water? Wouldn’t it be more of a question of “drink a whole cup of coffee and only get half the cup’s worth of hydration”? I drink quite a bit of decaffeinated coffee in a day, with full fat cream, and I’m hoping that that is not promoting dehydration.

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      • I drink zero coffee and this is what I recommend to everyone. Caffeine is a neurotoxin manufactured by the plant to deter insects from eating its fruit and seed (the coffee bean). Because we are much bigger than insects, we can take larger amounts of it without completely disrupting the function of our central nervous system. But the fact is that with every mg of caffeine, we do disrupt its delicate functions.

        Moreover, it is also an adrenal toxin in the sense that it induces a stress response: this is what gives the kick, this is why people are addicted to it. But this is very simply more stress with all of the deleterious effects this induces on our hormonal system but also on our physiological functions. And for this reason, caffeine is an important cause of the generalised adrenal fatigue and exhaustion we find in people so often these days. I have written a quite a lot about the hormonal and physiological effects of stress in a few articles that include: How much water, how much salt, and our amazing kidneys; The kidney: evolutionary marvel; and At the very heart of heart disease. I think you should read these.

        About decaf, I am far from being an expert on coffee or caffeine, but it turns out that there is still significant amounts of caffeine in decaf (about 10 mg instead of about 85 mg per cup in normal filtered coffee). But this is enough to trigger the body’s response, which shouldn’t be surprising given the exquisite sensitivity of everything in this bodymind. Read this short article about caffeine in decaf on Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061012185602.htm

        Finally, about the heavy cream with the coffee, although there is nothing wrong with heavy cream if it is organic and toxin-free, especially if you are following a very low-carb, high fat diet as I also recommend to everyone, it is food. The minutest amount of nutrient in a liquid will be sensed by the cells in the stomach and trigger a digestive response. This is why it is of great importance to drink plain water, herbal tea or light green tea without anything in it, because even a single drop of honey or grain of sugar will change the physiological response to it, in proportion to the amount of nutrients, of course.

        So, in conclusion, I recommend that you wean yourself off coffee, as gradually as you want, with the aim to lead a caffein-free life. You will notice the remarkably positive difference over time in your states, moods and sleep. I’m not sure how much you have read of what I have published on this blog, but eliminating sugar and starches from your diet, will have a far more profound effect on your health than eliminating caffeine. For me, caffeine is a second or even third order effect. Thus, I would recommend that you start with the most important first: eliminate the carbs.

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      • That is all very interesting! I am a new follower of your blog but I will read all your entries as soon as I can get time. I think they are clearly written but information-dense so I want to take my time with them. I agree with the low-carb life and have eliminated the white carbs and refined carbs and almost all fruits (I still eat Saskatoon berries whenever I can!) but my arthritis symptoms still plague me. Perhaps the caffeine is part of the problem. I will continue to search for answers and recommend your blog to my friends.

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      • Well then: welcome to this blog. Yes, please read through the articles and ask whenever you have any question about the contents of articles. Naturally, the more you read, the more potential questions will be answered.

        If you have arthritis, you should definitely read ‘Treating Arthritis I’, for which I plan to write the second part soon, ‘Why you should start taking magnesium today’, and also ‘At the very heart of heart disease’. Anyway, just read as much as you can and ask questions freely.

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