Daniel Vitalis is the host in the upcoming Evolver Learning Lab course, "Why Wild Water: Water Shamanism and the Healing Secret of Ethno-Hydrology." This live, interactive video webinar will take place on May 16.
Though it may come as a surprise to some readers, the consumption of processed water poses many verified health concerns for human beings. This article will explore just one of those concerns, that of demineralization, which is the removal of dissolved minerals and trace elements from water through filtration and distillation methods aimed at removing man-made contaminants.
It has been estimated that human beings — the last extant member of the Homo genus — have existed in our current form for some 200,000 years. Of course hominids in general have an extraordinary history that reaches back millions of years before the present. During that time, and until only very recently, human beings drank exclusively of a water that could be described as "whole" or "wild" in that it came directly from the hydrosphere of the earth and was not chemically purified, refined, or "processed" in any significant way before being consumed.
This water would have come from either surface water — streams, rivers, lakes, and dug wells — or from ground water surfacing as springs, whose source were aquifers, deep pockets of stored water beneath the bedrock of the earth. Today, particularly throughout the developed world, the consumption of unprocessed water is rare, as modern humans, even those living in rural communities, rely ever more increasingly upon a kind of "processed water" for their hydration needs.
The term "processed water" has not yet become a part of our everyday vernacular, but I suspect that in time it will become as common as the phrase "processed food". I use the term to describe both the mechanical processes aimed at cleaning water, such as filtration and distillation, or chemical treatments such as "purification" via chlorination, "supplementation" via fluoridation, or "stabilization" via the use of phosphoric acid and sodium hydroxide treatments designed to reduce corrosion of municipal or commercial piping infrastructure.
Just as it is with food, there exists a variety of water processing techniques, ranging from gentlest forms of filtration to the increasingly more aggressive forms of refinement such as heat distillation. Consider, analogously, the example of the cereal grain wheat. Whole wheat berries represent a minimally processed whole-food form of wheat, while whole wheat flour is a more significantly, though still gently, processed food. On the extreme end would be white flour representing a much more heavily processed form of the wheat berry. While all three forms are, technically speaking, still wheat, the first represents a whole-food matrix of carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, the second contains the same though many of the delicate lipids and vitamins have begun to degrade and oxidize, and the third is essentially just the micro-nutrient deficient carbohydrate remnant of wheat.
In keeping with this metaphor, we might consider water from a natural spring source as "whole-water", a water that has been carbon filtered as a gently processed water, and ultimately a distilled or reverse osmosis water as being the most aggressively processed water of all. The whole water contains a suite of substances — both solids and gasses — dissolved into a matrix of H20 molecules, the second form has had some of these substances removed, and the third represents a highly refined water, being little more than chemically pure H20 molecules. This is the "white flour" of waters.
Most of us were raised and educated with the idea that water is simply H20, two Hydrogen atoms bonded to a single Oxygen atom in what geometrically resembles the silhouette of Micky Mouse's head. What could be simpler? This chemical — Dihydrogen Oxide — is chemically pure water, found in laboratories, but almost never found in nature in significant amounts. Natural water is far more chemically complex, and is as varied in its composition as is the geology from which it is drawn. Heat distillation and reverse osmosis filtration were developed and used for scientific and industrial purposes respectively, and neither was developed to produce drinking water. Their employment in the creation of contaminant-free drinking water was an after thought.
Of course the contamination of the worlds surface water from industrial, agricultural, and radiological contaminants has led to the increased need for filtration or distillation in order to remove harmful compounds and radio-isotopes present in surface waters, however evidence has emerged that suggests that the water created thorough these methods may not be supportive to human health.
When people speak of "water", especially in reference to natural water as found in the biosphere, we are actually referring to an electrically dynamic matrix of H20 molecules in which positively and negatively charged ions (electrolytes) are dissolved. These electrolytes are an important part of the nutritive qualities of a given water, and when they are absent, as in the case of demineralized water, that water becomes less nutritious.
"Demineralized water that has not been remineralized , or low-mineral content water — in the light of the absence or substantial lack of essential minerals in it — is not considered ideal drinking water, and therefore, its regular consumption may not be providing adequate levels of some beneficial nutrients." –Health risks from drinking demineralized water, F. Kozisek, WHO guidelines for drinking water quality
From the perspective of human nutritional need, the differences between wild water and distilled water can be likened to the difference between whole sugar cane and white sugar (sucrose). While sugar cane contains sucrose, it contains many other nutrients too, such as vitamins and minerals, making it a wholesome and nutrient rich food. When it is refined into molasses and ultimately into white sugar all of these and other critical parts of the whole have been removed, leaving behind chemically pure "white sugar" consisting exclusively of crystalized sucrose. While more "pure" from the chemist's perspective, we now know — and it has been nearly universally accepted — that the consumption of chemically pure sucrose is not supportive to human health. It's too pure, lacking the important vitamins and minerals that are essential to our homeostasis and to the metabolism of the calories contained in the sugar itself. The effect is a draw upon our bodies' stored nutrients from other food sources and ultimately results in a net loss of nutrients from our bodies. Could the same be true of chemically pure water?
"Recent epidemiological studies of an ecologic design among Russian populations supplied with water varying in TDS suggest that low-mineral drinking water may be a risk factor for hypertension and coronary heart disease, gastric and duodenal ulcers, chronic gastritis, goiter, pregnancy complications and several complications in newborns and infants, including jaundice, anemia, fractures and growth disorders" –Health risks from drinking demineralized water, F. Kozisek, WHO guidelines for drinking water quality
According to the World Health Organization, consumption of demineralized water (distilled, reverse osmosis, deionized, desalinated) poses several health risks that may include damage to intestinal mucosa and loss of minerals due to increased diuresis. They also remind us that chemically pure water should be remineralized before consumption, though they admit it is difficult if not impossible to "reconstruct" natural water. Their report on the topic (a rolling revision of the WHO guidelines for drinking-water quality) entitled "Health Risks From Drinking Demineralized Water", discusses the fact that while commercially or municipally demineralized water is often "stabilized" with a re-injection of minerals and trace elements after its processing, this is rarely the case when demineralization technologies are employed for household use, and many people continue to drink this demineralized water.
They also note that the addition of minerals to these waters has been to improve the organoleptic properties (taste, smell, mouthfeel) since demineralized waters are widely reported to be poor in taste and less thirst quenching than fresh water, or to reduce the corrosive effects that demineralized waters have on pipes and infrastructure. In other words, the aim of remineralization efforts has not necessarily been to replace essential nutrients, but rather to make demineralized water more palatable and stable. Perhaps the choice and form of minerals used and their ratios would differ if the health of the end consumer was the impetus for remineralization. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing most water remineralization efforts have been strictly for commercial or industrial purposes.
"Possibly none of the commonly used ways of re-mineralization could be considered optimum since the water does not contain all of its beneficial components. Current methods of stabilization are primarily intended to decrease the corrosive effects of demineralized water." –Health risks from drinking demineralized water, F. Kozisek, WHO guidelines for drinking water quality
What emerges now is a picture of healthy water that seems to parallel that which has recently come to light about food. Just as we are evolutionarily adapted to eating foods in their whole form, so too are we similarly adapted to drinking water in its whole form, as it is found in nature, as it is found in the hydrosphere. This water, something more than the sum of its parts, is a beadwork of electrically charged elements strung throughout a dynamic and constantly shifting hydrogen-bonded tapestry of water molecules, producing something that isn't easily replicated by simply adding minerals into demineralized water like so many ingredients in a recipe.
Still, remineralization techniques represent an improvement upon demineralized waters when they must be consumed, and are therefore advised. If you are using reverse osmosis or distilled water to reduce chemical contaminants in your water supply, consider employing some water remineralization strategy to reintroduce missing nutrients to your drinking water. An added benefit will be improved organoleptic properties — such as taste, smell, and thirst quench — which in turn can lead to an increased desire to drink water and thus becomes an incentive for remaining more fully hydrated. Additionally remineralization reduces your exposure to the risks associated with drinking demineralized water.
An easy and inexpensive way to remineralize your water is adding small amounts of a whole, unrefined sea salt or land salt and then measuring the amount of minerals with a TDS meter. Unrefined salts contain a natural balance of trace elements in addition to sodium chloride, and a TDS (total dissolved solids) meter reads the content of minerals in water in parts per million (PPM). The World Health Organization recommends drinking water whose TDS begins around 100 ppm and ranges as high as 400 ppm.
Simply place the electrodes of your TDS meter into your water to get a baseline reading, and then begin adding very small amounts of your whole salt and stirring. Once fully dissolved, recheck again until you reach your desired TDS reading. You can find a TDS meter here.
If you are interested in finding a source for whole, wild water that is free from man made pollutants, probably no strategy is as effective as personally gathering water from an aquifer fed spring. A user built data base for springs around the world can be found at www.FindASpring.com and can be used to assist you in accessing wild water where you live. There is a developing community of people who are using this strategy all across the globe, and the momentum is building. This is an excellent way to interface directly with your watershed, with your local ecosystem, and ultimately with nature herself.
Image by Joshua Davis, courtesy of Creative Commons license.