"Chinese Medicine for the Modern World" available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Honoring the Drinking Instincts

Trust your body

“Instinct” is defined as a powerful impulse that feels natural rather than reasoned. In today’s computer language, instinct refers to our hardwiring. Instinct is found in the genes of all living creatures and is responsible for survival and success. When people ignore instinct, they do so at their own peril.


Reason is useful for modifying instinct so that one’s behavior is appropriate to the momentary situation. If your instinct tells you that you need to urinate, for example, reason might modify that instinct so that you will prefer to wait until the situation allows for the convenient and acceptable elimination of urine. But to shout down that instinct with intellect (I just went to the bathroom an hour ago, so I don’t have to urinate now) represents an unnatural separation between mind and body, one that nurtures distrust of self, self-loathing, and insecurity, contributes to neurosis, and can even lead to serious injury.


On the other hand, consistent honoring of instincts – listening to them first, before any intellectual messaging – nurtures self-trust, the basis of self-love, because instinct is never wrong, never confused. While the mind is often bewildered and in error, our basic animal instincts, our infallible experts, always convey to us in some way true information, and are essentially what keep wild animals who have minimal intellectual capacity alive, healthy, and in optimal form for survival and propagation.


Americans are notorious for trusting friends, scientific “experts,” and advertisers over their own instincts. Most Americans will commonly eat when they are not hungry, scurry around when they are tired, ignore the emotions of mad, glad, sad, scared, and bored, worry about the future and past which do not even exist, “work through” pain, and drink liquids when they are not thirsty. All of this unnatural living adds up to poor grades on the international health index of industrialized countries, with residents of the United States consistently coming in near or at the bottom of the list.


Let us now address one group of instincts that so many Americans are taught to ignore – the drinking instincts.


There are three drinking instincts, in order of importance for us.


  1. Drink Liquid Instinct
  2. Stop Drinking Instinct
  3. Beverage Choice Instinct


The Drink Liquid Instinct


The Drink Liquid Instinct sends us a very clear message – thirst! All animals hydrate themselves successfully merely by listening to this instinctive feeling. So do people in other countries and in all times past. Modern Americans subjected to the outrageous hurrying and worrying of city life generate a lot of unnecessary heat inside, which leads to the creation of a long list of inflammatory disorders. Fortunately, the human body is aware of the need to cool this heat, and sends the message of thirst in response. Even just taking a water or tea break by itself will cool inflammation, and it is important to give oneself permission to do this frequently. 


Conversely and perversely, during the last three decades in America have people started depending on “experts” to tell them when to drink liquid and how much to drink. This is such a brilliant example of a culture that encourages the separation of mind and body, and the complete distrust of instinct by the mind.


We have all heard the advice to drink eight glasses of water per day. This started in the late 1980s, when Jenny Craig started having clients fill up with water as a gimmick to temporarily fill the empty hunger feeling (back when most Americans still felt physical hunger).


People couldn’t keep running to the bathroom all day and night excreting unneeded liquid for a reason as flimsy as that. And so in the 1990s, the reasoning morphed into “flushing toxins,” with no solid scientific studies to back up this claim, however.


Now it’s all about “hydrating,” early and often. This mantra is propagated by the bottled water companies and their hired researchers. We are told quite solemnly that once you are thirsty, it’s too late! Given the accuracy of this advice, there should be a long and painful history of massive and severe dehydration epidemics in animals and people who never had the benefit of “scientific experts” and advertisers to tell them when to drink fluids!  And yet, this evidence is missing in the historical record.


Just like with food and hunger, the body can only use liquid when it first sends a message of thirst.


We’ve encountered so many patients who divulge to us the terrible guilt they feel at not being able to drink eight glasses of water per day! “I know I should drink eight glasses of water per day, but I keep forgetting,” is the common complaint heard in acupuncture clinics all across this country every day. But when the body really does need liquid, it is not something that can be remembered. The need can only be felt.


This kind of guilt only worsens mental health. Impartial testing (not paid for by bottled water companies!) has not produced a shred of credible evidence that a regimen of eight glasses of water daily has benefited anybody but the bottom line of the water companies.


Our patients universally thank us for giving them permission to drink only when thirsty, releasing them from this artificial and ridiculous schedule.


The Stop Drinking Instinct


Just like food, sleep, exercise, sex, elimination, and everything else instinctive, the body knows how much liquid it needs. It will send us a message of “Ahhhh!” There is no need to second guess this instinct. To repeat: Self-trust is the basis of self-esteem, which is the foundation of a healthy and integrated mind/body.


Unlike food, the overconsumption of liquids is usually physically harmless except for the annoying side effect of polyuria – frequent trips to the toilet. But the body has a gag reflex that makes it difficult to overindulge in fluids. This is why the eight-glasses-per-day regimen can’t and won’t work over a long period of time.


It is said that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. This is not true in the case of many Americans, since they are bamboozled into distrusting their own drinking instincts.


The Beverage Choice Instinct


The body instinctively knows what it wants to drink, and at what temperature and taste it needs the liquid to be.


We are informed by many pseudo-experts that we have to drink “pure” water, that nothing else will do the job of “hydrating.” This message assumes that the human body is too crude and inefficient to be able to extract H2O from other liquids. And yet, honest scientific inquiry disproves this belief. The body even regularly obtains a certain percentage of its H2O needs from solid food! This process of extraction is even easier with juices, tea, coffee, and soda pop!


It all boils down to the question, “What satisfies best?” For example, after exercise or in hot weather, nothing answers many folks’ thirst like cold water. But not everyone. People who are always trying to get warm probably prefer nothing colder than room temperature liquid. And in the morning and throughout a working day, many people around the world consume several cups of hot tea or coffee, because these hot drinks feel good and warming, and assist the digestive process.


In Chinese medical textbooks, we read that cold drinks are always injurious to the body. This mechanical advice probably worked for the most part with Chinese peasants in the north of China who may have lacked warm clothing, warm shelter, and cooked food, and had only contaminated water to drink, water that had to be boiled to be safe. But in our hurry-and-worry culture that is so dominated by inflammatory disorders, cold drinks often satisfy the best. It is an interesting fact that cold water absorbs quicker into the stomach and upper body than room temperature or hot water. This is why cold fluids satisfy so often and so well in response to excessive heat.


Doctors can certainly make recommendations for food and drink to their patients, but this kind of intellectual advice should always be followed by the caveat “. . . and see how that feels.” Because in the final analysis, the human body is the ultimate authority on its own physical and emotional needs.

image7