One likely signal: Chapped lips
Background: Lips are a reflection of the health and hydration of the entire body. “If you are well hydrated, then your lips will be well hydrated,” says Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, clinical nutritionist and author of Digestive Wellness (McGraw-Hill, 2004). Less water in the body means less moisture for the skin– the body’s largest organ. The delicate tissue of the lips is extra sensitive to drought. “If you are constantly using lip balm or lip gloss to sooth chapped lips, it’s a sign you need to drink up,” says Lipski.
Other signals: Headaches, infrequent urination, dark yellow or smelly urine, dry skin, slow turgor (meaning that if you pinch the skin on the back of your hand, it doesn’t snap right back into place). Although the aging process slows turgor down somewhat, even in older adults it still should return to normal within a second or two.
How to respond: Drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day can be intimidating, says Swift, so if you’re not able to quaff that amount, you can still get hydrated by sipping herbal tea and working additional servings of fruits and vegetables into your daily diet. “The transition to a more whole-foods diet puts us on autopilot to get more water because they are naturally high in moisture,” says Swift. And, make sure to include whole foods that are rich in essential fatty acids, such as nuts and seeds, avocados, and anchovies and sardines, which help maintain healthy cell membranes and hold in moisture.
You’re not getting enough fiber…
One likely signal: Constipation
Background: Constipation is the clearest indicator of the body’s need for more fiber. “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate up to 100 grams of fiber a day and had an average stool weight of 2 pounds,” says Mark Hyman, MD, the editor of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and author of The UltraSimple Diet (Pocket Books, 2007).
“Today, the average American eats less than 8 grams of fiber a day, and the average bowel movement is a puny 4 ounces.” That’s a problem, he says, because the bowels are key to the body’s elimination process. When traffic is backed up, toxins from the bowel leach back into the body and can cause a multitude of inflammation-based health problems in everything from your digestion and skin to your heart and brain. They can also disrupt hormonal balance and immunity. The bottom line, Hyman says: “If stools are hard and hard to pass, you’ve got a problem.”
Other signals: Frequent hunger pangs, energy slumps, digestive trouble, skin problems, inflammatory conditions
How to respond: Eat more legumes, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. All are chock-full of fiber and other nutrients, making them natural go-to foods. Getting the recommended 35 to 40 grams of fiber a day not only improves bowel health, but it also lowers the risk of diabetes and heart disease, says Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine of the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
If you want other ways to sneak extra roughage into your day, Swift suggests sprinkling rice-bran fiber on salads or oatmeal. She likes rice-bran fiber because it’s gluten-free and has been shown to help eliminate toxins, such as PCBs. Another one of her favorite fiber boosters is a seasoning she makes out of crushed pumpkin seeds, ground flax meal, sesame seeds, kelp flakes and sea salt — basically, a riff on gomasio, which is used as a salt alternative in Japanese cuisine. Put it in a wrap, sprinkle over brown rice or use to garnish soups, she says. “The nuts, seeds and ocean veggies are a nutrient- and fiber-licous powerhouse.” (Keep it in the fridge to lengthen its lifespan.)
For more info, see our article Fiber: Why It Matters More Than You Think (April 2010).